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Obama’s second term challenges must include tackling climate change

In his acceptance speech of November 6, Barack Obama at long last reaffirmed the need to address global warming. But unfortunately he also reaffirmed the spurious goal of US oil independence, which can…

The American people have spoken in favour of climate change by re-electing Barack Obama to a second presidential term. Flickr/

In his acceptance speech of November 6, Barack Obama at long last reaffirmed the need to address global warming.

But unfortunately he also reaffirmed the spurious goal of US oil independence, which can be at odds with climate policy when used to promote CO2-intensive options such as tar sands and shale oil. The fate of the Keystone tar sands pipeline will be an early test of Obama’s bona fides on climate change as distinct from his being hostage to the “oil independence” goal and Big Oil.

If US climate change policy is to be more than cosmetic, the real questions should be about its part in an internally consistent set of fundamental policies within a “whole of government” approach.

Pricing and regulating emissions

In the 2008 presidential elections, both Obama and John McCain supported cap-and-trade as a means of meeting designated abatement targets by 2050. But pricing US greenhouse gas emissions has been abandoned since the advent of the Tea Party’s power in the Congressional elections of 2010.

However, such political difficulties need not preclude regulatory policy action, such as by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has closed down emissions-intensive, coal-fired power stations and blocked new ones. Total CO2 emission reductions have also reflected federally subsidised growth in wind-power and tightened vehicle efficiency standards.

The aggregate level of US CO2 emissions has in fact declined to mid-1990s levels. This is due also to the glut of natural gas which has displaced some coal-fired electricity generation. It is also an unintended side effect of the 2008 economic crisis, “off-shoring” (“deindustrialisation”) and the tripling of oil prices since 2003.

An integrated approach can address the above-noted political obstacles. Fiscal policy is a case in point.

“Green” investment and fiscal policy

To be effective, fiscal policy in the present deep slump needs expansionary investment programs but also to address the public debt concerns. Resulting sustainable economic growth helps the latter by augmenting tax revenues. Additional revenues can also be sourced from taxing the super-rich, as Obama is seeking to do, and by taxing beneficiaries of infrastructure programs. Retrenching wasteful military expenditures (especially foreign) will also help.

To facilitate such investment in assets that are both productive and ecologically sound, the US also needs institutions such as Skidelsky and Martin’s proposed National Investment Bank. Such a Bank (as the authors claim) “could take the lead in financing green technologies such as wind and geothermal power by evaluating and incorporating into its appraisals the value of their benefits to the broader economy”.

This proposal includes explicit criteria about due process and transparency, to prevent the kind of pork-barrelling evident in “Big Oil” and corn-based ethanol fuel supports.

A Republican-dominated House will no doubt seek to block such measures in favour of concessions to big business based on dubious “trickle down” or “sound finance” ideologies. The solution is not deals with economic libertarians in the re-arranged Tea Party.

Rather, the political challenge for the presidential arm would be to ensure that these elements bear the electoral consequences of seeking to grant further fiscal privileges to the rich at the expense of a sound macroeconomic strategy.

Effective policy and politics also need to include structural adjustment assistance to ensure fair burden-sharing as well as effective information programs about extreme climate events, imminent climate system “tipping points” and so on.

International action on climate change

Into Obama’s second term, it is a glaring anomaly that the three main long-run energy scenarios published by the US Energy Information Administration still do not even include a CO2-emission constrained case, such as the 450ppm scenario published by the International Energy Agency in its annual World Energy Outlook. The absence of such a scenario can only indicate that the US does not take this vital target seriously.

Regrettably, the US remains the only OECD member state that has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Given that such ratification requires congressional approval, this is not likely as long as Tea Party libertarian Republicanism holds sway in the House of Representatives. However, this obstacle does not mean the Obama administration is powerless internationally, any more than it is domestically.

Against this less than supportive political background, US performance regarding emissions abatement should be judged internationally on results and projected results rather than adherence to particular policy methods, optimal in theory but for now inaccessible for the evident political reasons.

Turning to the Pacific

Some commentators are calling for the US to “rebalance” toward the Pacific and reduce its footprint in the Middle East, oil-rich and otherwise. This cannot be achieved until the US begins to normalise its relations with both Israel and Iran.

Iran has the largest combined conventional oil and gas resource globally. It is the second largest holder of conventional gas reserves. Normalising Iran’s international relations would enable it to provide CO2-saving natural gas to coal-dependent China and India.

At the same time, the US is facing a bonanza in non-conventional gas supplies. In this context, US gas exports to China become an option. This could not only be profitable but also reduce China’s alarming and still increasing coal dependence.

But this will not and should not happen unless a US federal administration responsibly observes the International Energy Agency’s “Golden Rules” for regulating non-conventional gas, including not venting the potent greenhouse gas methane.

A similar option but with prospects of a lower carbon footprint is the commercially driven export of the relevant US extraction technology to China, which has its own large untapped resources of non-conventional gas.

In this eventuality, once again ensuring strict obedience to the above-noted “Golden Rules” is another reason for expanding IEA membership to include China and other major energy powers not yet in the OECD club of rich nations. Such inclusion is a policy that the US should strongly support as part of its foreign energy policy, and a general policy of getting China (and other potential or actual adversaries such as Iran) “more involved” in responsible global governance.

Leading by (whose) example to reduce growth in oil use?

Where will action on climate change sit on Barack Obama’s second term agenda? EPA/Shawn Thew

Over the past 70 years, the US has not infrequently wielded the “oil weapon”, or at least threatened to do so by depriving other states of the ability to trade in this vital commodity. Examples have included importers (Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany in WWII, and as an ever-present threat to China) and exporters (Iran 1952-3, 1979-2012; Iraq 1991-2003). There is no doubt that China continues to hold these fears despite its symbiotic economic relationship with the US, and given the overwhelming global naval power of the US.

As Winston Churchill remarked, “safety and certainty in oil lies in variety and variety alone” - or as we would now say, “diversity” of both export and import. China is acting accordingly, through its so-called “going out” policy to access global supplies of oil and gas.

But such a policy also has its risks for regional and world peace. The planet, and certainly China, cannot sustain - ecologically or otherwise - the “American” model of escalating private motorisation, low rates of gasoline tax and consequent excessive oil use.

For Barack Obama, there is evidently much to be done in his second term to address climate change, both on a domestic and global scale. Whether he will take this responsibility seriously, however, remains to be seen.

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16 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    If the US has so much cheap energy how come they're struggling? I think the perception of US energy independence will be short lived. The US is and will continue to be a net importer of oil. The glut of cheap gas associated with shale oil has combined with EPA coal pollution rules to displace a lot of CO2 in power generation. That's without any carbon tax. If Australian experience is anything to go by other countries like China may find that there isn't as much unconventional oil and gas as they hoped.

    If the US doesn't adopt CO2 constraints and they get into LNG exports a decade from now they may wish they hadn't. When the US gas price eventually doubles or quadruples then coal may make a comeback for baseload generation, EPA rules or not. The use of gas as a diesel substitute may be stymied. A US economist coined the term 'irrational exuberance' for financial markets but we're seeing the same thing with US energy.

  2. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    "The American people have spoken in favour of climate change by re-electing Barack Obama to a second presidential term."

    Really? So, what other candidate should they have instead voted for, which would not be "speaking in favour of climate change"?

    1. Tim Scanlon


      In reply to Luke Weston

      There were 6 people running for president. The Green candidate, Jill Stein, was pretty much standing on a climate change ticket. Of course no-one heard anything about the other 4 candidates because the debates and media are organised by the two main parties.

    2. Mike Hansen


      In reply to Luke Weston

      Luke - I agree that photo caption is a bit weird - I suspect that it is an editing error.

      There is nothing in Barry's article that supports that proposition. As weak as Obama's record on climate change has been, there was no doubt that Romney's position was to ditch climate change policy as dictated by the fossil fuel industry.

    3. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Luke Weston

      Mike, yeah, I think we'll have to take the responsibility for that caption which on second look isn't that hot. But now it's been discussed at some length here, it would be odd (Stalinist?) to remove it, so I'll leave it there for others to scratch their heads at.

  3. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Great Article, me thinks Obama wont do anything on this front

  4. Tim Scanlon


    I saw the interview where Obama answered the question about climate change. I was not filled with hope.

    I don't think he has the will to try and push through a climate change policy package, especially if he has to win over the loony oil money congressmen. It should also be pointed out that Obama is a centrist and hasn't really done anything to annoy his funders in big oil (e.g. tar sands).

    On the plus side, he has done some things for the research and science side. Plus he has set a few limits around the place, like fuel efficiency laws. But these are chipping at the edges for the second biggest emitter. If the US wants us to continue to buy a whole heap of useless military equipment, Australia should demand that the US have a carbon price.

  5. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    steve harper pulled canada out of kyoto, so unless the author is already counting canada as the 51st state, there are actually two oecd countries outside the process - co-dependent partners in a race to the bottom. harper has also abolished the position of chief scientist, he has stopped funding for the national arctic ice research institute when its arguably most needed. he has stopped funding the national climate change adaptation body because its reports & recommendations were starting to make…

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    1. Barry Naughten

      Energy political economist and international relations specialist at Australian National University

      In reply to alfred venison

      Alfred makes a useful and salutary comment from a Canadian perspective. Future versions of this text will make that amendment to include Canada with the US as an OECD hold-out from Kyoto.
      His comment indeed makes a pessimistic case regarding the politics of climate change in Canada. The instance of oil from tar-sands does pose special policy features given for example that its high CO2 emissions are split between Canada (from the extraction and processing) and the importing country, in this case the US (from refining and end-use).
      There are several ways to turn around such policy pessimism.
      The first is achieve success in exposing the consequences of ignoring the substantial risks of 'catastrophic' climate change itself. Others include making a successful case based on exposing the other adverse consequences of harmful technologies such as tar-sands and poorly regulated extraction of other forms of non-conventional oil and gas.

    2. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to alfred venison

      thanks for the reply. both countries should be treated as a symbiotic unit: canada's need to export oil is matched by america's need to import oil. oil patriots on both sides of the 49th are hailing the ramping up of the tar sands as america's liberation from "blood oil", as they like to call middle eastern sources. obama will have to allow a modified keystone, otherwise the democrats will lose texas to the republicans forever. and worse, he'd be known as the president who allowed 10,000 refinery…

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  6. Mark Harrigan

    PhD Physicist

    Maybe the title should read "IF Obama’s second term challenges does NOT include tackling climate change then we are in for a much warmer world - alas there is not much room for optimism"?

  7. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    I can answer the photo caption question for you all, "Where will action on climate change sit on Barack Obama’s second term agenda?"

    Nowhere. And a good thing too. He should concentrate on getting their stupid health system sorted first.

    Until all of you guys who choose to believe in climate change then choose to burn JetA1 fuel to fly overseas for pleasure, Obama, Gillard, Merkel et al are only going to pay lip service to climate change issues.

    They know you don't really want to live a life without flying and hot and cold drinks and plastic and Ipads and flat screen tv's.

    And a jolly good hello to my old mates Harrigan, Scanlon et al.

    Gerard Denier Dean

  8. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    One comment about the comments. Isn't it boring now with the new comment guidelines that mean we have to use our real names. I got no problems, I always have, but it looks like it has knocked about 90% of the pack out of the race.

    Is this a good thing, or is it a bad thing?

    Methinks that the quality is higher, perhaps because people can more easily see my brilliant, witty, intelligent (joke) comments, however, it may drop the numbers who read The Conversation.

    And is that what the very wise editors of The Conversation want?

    Who knows.

    Gerard Denier Dean

  9. Ian L. McQueen


    There is no valid reason to believe that CO2 drives our climate, so any and all talk of "reducing emissions of carbon dioxide" are worthless batting of gums. There is zero scientifically valid evidence that CO2 affects our climate. The main "greenhouse gas" is NOT carbon dioxide; it is WATER. The world has not warmed for the past 16 years. How long will it take before the alarmists among us realize that they have been deceived into a belief in an oncoming thermegadon?


  10. Andrew Glikson

    Earth and paleo-climate scientist at Australian National University

    The CO2 greenhouse effect is inherent in the basic laws of physics and chemistry, where black body radiation (Planck, Stefan Bolzmann, Krichhof, is fundamental to atmospheric physics, oceanography and paleo-climate studies, as confirmed by observations of the direct effect of greenhouse gases on planetary atmospheres. Ice core and paleoclimate studies resolve the closest relation between GHG levels and global temperatures. To comprehend the effect of…

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  11. Andrew Glikson

    Earth and paleo-climate scientist at Australian National University

    Regarding the role of water vapor in global warming.

    1. Atmospheric H2O in the tropics exert a major greenhouse effect but also reflect solar radiation back to space
    2, Atmospheric H20 vapor over the deserts is low yet these regions are warming faster than many other.
    3. Atmospheric H20 vapor over the poles is almost nil yet these regions are warming 2 to 4 times faster than lower latitudes..

    The concentration of H2O in the atmosphere is the consequence of the rates of evaporation – which depend on temperature, and the amount of H2O the atmosphere can hold is controlled by temperature.

    The residence time of H2O in the atmosphere is short whereas CO2 stays for thousands to tens of thousands of years.