Obama talks ‘balance’ on warming in Rolling Stone interview

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 24, 2015

President Obama used an interview with Rolling Stone magazine published today to explain why support for some fossil fuels and nuclear development might square with his ardent belief in addressing climate change.

He told contributing editor Jeff Goodell during last month’s trip to the Alaskan Arctic that a president is not free to shut down fossil fuels and nuclear development instantly, as some environmentalists have demanded.

“And regardless of how urgent I think the science is, if I howl at the moon without being able to build a political consensus behind me, it’s not going to get done,” he said. “And in fact, we end up potentially marginalizing supporters or people who recognize there’s a need to act but also have some real interests at stake.”

Obama gave his interview during a historic trip to the Arctic in which he charged that none of the mostly wealthy nations represented in the Arctic Council is moving fast enough to contain emissions that are threatening the north, and by extension the world (Greenwire, Sept. 1).

But environmentalists said at the time that Obama’s message was undercut by his recent decision to allow Royal Dutch Shell PLC to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea for the first time in 24 years. Some groups protested his trip, accusing the president of hypocrisy.

In his Rolling Stone interview, Obama defended support for some fossil fuels development as important to securing a durable response to climate change that would garner broad support. He noted that Alaskan villages that are threatened by warming sometimes have fossil fuels interests. Bans on drilling in very vulnerable areas must be offset with some development in less risky regions, he suggested, to ensure supply and economic development.

“And somebody who is not involved in politics may say, ‘Well, the shortest line between two points is just a straight line; let’s just go straight to it,'” he said. “Well, unfortunately, in a democracy, I may have to zig and zag occasionally, and take into account very real concerns and interests.”

He compared his administration’s approval of new nuclear power plants in the South — also panned by some environmentalists — with his slow reversal of the rule against gays serving openly in the military. More time was needed to shore up Pentagon support for an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he said.

“So there’s always this balance,” he said. He also said that he had no opportunity to help enact a carbon cap-and-trade bill during the first two years of his presidency, despite Democratic majorities in Congress, because Republican opposition made it impossible to overcome a filibuster.

Members like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his 2008 rival for the presidency, got “caught up in a feverish opposition to anything I proposed,” he said, reversing their past support for a climate bill. “Which meant that getting the numbers that we needed was going to be too difficult.”

The Arctic trip, like the pope’s visit to the United States this week, was intended to build momentum toward the round of high-stakes international climate talks later this year in Paris.

Obama said he had saved the 2009 United Nations talks in Copenhagen, Denmark — which he called a “disorganized mess” — by “strong-arming” large developing countries into participating constructively.

But he expressed hope that this year’s talks would yield the kind of agreement on emissions the world needs.

“I believe that when we get to Paris at the end of this year, we’re now in a position for the first time to have all countries recognize their responsibilities to tackle the problem, and to have a meaningful set of targets as well as the financing required to help poor countries adapt,” he said.

Major developing emitters like China, India and Brazil have already come to the table, he noted, adding that this year’s agreement need not lay out the final set of emissions-reduction commitments.

“I’m less concerned about the precise number, because let’s stipulate right now, whatever various country targets are, it’s still going to fall short of what the science requires,” he said. “So a percent here or a percent there coming from various countries is not going to be a deal-breaker.”

Advocates who track international climate issues say the commitments major emitting nations have floated ahead of this year’s talks do not add up to what would be needed to keep warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the threshold that scientists say would trigger the worst effects of climate change. But Obama said this year’s agreement would create an annual evaluation and increasing commitments in later years.

One unanswered question in the climate negotiations is whether an agreement will provide a mechanism for countries to revisit their emissions reduction commitments.