Published on

Obama Bashes Climate Change Deniers

As Obama delivers new and powerful rhetoric on climate change, a closer look at his own policies asks harder questions

President Obama offered a new and impassioned speech centered around climate change on Saturday in which he asked graduating college students in California if they could "imagine a more worthy goal — a more worthy legacy — than protecting the world we leave to our children?"

Most headlines following the speech focused on the president's chastising of GOP lawmakers over their refusal to accept the global scientific consensus on climate change, but timely new reporting on how the current administration has dealt with the threat of human-caused global warming asks a deeper question: If President Obama and his Democrat Party allies understand and take seriously the planetary threat of greenhouse gas emissions, why have their proposed solutions been so consistently malformed to the challenge?

Of course, as many note, it's easy (and important) to point out the wholesale climate denialism of the Republican Party, but according to many in the environmental community, the Obama administration's "all of the above" energy strategy, its expansion and promotion of oil and gas drilling on private and federal lands, and its political tip-toeing around climate-related legislation adds up to a response not commensurate to the crisis they boast about understanding and taking seriously.

Offering the commencement address to graduates at the University of California, Irvine on Saturday, Obama took a swipe at climate science-denying lawmakers in Congress "who stubbornly and automatically reject the scientific evidence about climate change."


The president ridiculed those who defend their inaction by saying, “Hey, look, I’m not a scientist,” by offering this political translation of what statements like that mean for Republicans: “I know that manmade climate change really is happening, but if I admit it, I’ll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot, so I’m not going to admit it.”

To those people Obama countered, "Now, I’m not a scientist either, but we’ve got some really good ones at NASA."

And though Obama made an impassioned plea to the graduates that they must be the ones to lead on the issue—"You’re going to have to push those of us in power to do what this American moment demands," he said—a new article published in the July issue of Harper's magazine by environmental writer Mark Hertsgaard highlights the largely undiagnosed failures of the way the Obama White House has managed the issue thus far.

In the article, titled Promises, Promises (pay wall), Hertsgaard details an in-person interview with one of Obama's most key advisers on climate change, John Podesta. In a key passage readers are given a direct look at where the "red line" of discussion exists for Obama loyalists speaking on the internal machinations of the president's climate policies, especially during his first term when the political winds, and a Democrat-controlled Congress, were in his favor:

[Podesta] did not pretend that Obama’s climate record as president had been satisfactory. Seated at his kitchen table in Washington, D.C., Podesta was dressed in running clothes; at age sixty-five, he still competes in marathons. I began by asking, “How will history judge President Obama on climate change, if history is still being written fifty years from now?”

Podesta stared at me in silence, then he asked if we might speak off the record. We did. When we returned, he limited himself to noting that decisions about the economic team and its policies were “made by the president, and they were not made around the question of climate change. We were in the middle of a fiscal crisis.”

Obama will be viewed as someone “who tried to address the challenge,” replied Podesta. He was willing to take risks and expend political capital on the issue — a rare and commendable thing. “But fifty years from now, is that going to seem like enough? I think the answer to that is going to be no.”

Of course, the president faced bitter opposition from the Republicans. But Podesta believed that some of Obama’s top aides shared the blame for his lackluster record. “There were people inside the White House in the first two years who were not there” on climate change, he said. Their attitude was dismissive at best: “Yeah, fine, fine, fine, but it’s ninth on our list of eight really important problems.”

“You headed his transition team,” I pointed out. “Do you feel any responsibility for helping select those people?”

“Which people?”

I mentioned that Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff during Obama’s first two years in office, was frequently accused of being climate non-enthusiast number one. Lawrence Summers, the president’s chief economic adviser, was criticized in similar terms.

Podesta stared at me in silence, then he asked if we might speak off the record. We did. When we returned, he limited himself to noting that decisions about the economic team and its policies were “made by the president, and they were not made around the question of climate change. We were in the middle of a fiscal crisis.”

Obama's latest push to cap carbon emissions by imposing new regulations on the U.S. fleet of coal plants has also received applause, but more critical voices have been steadfast in saying that the policy simply isn't enough to adequately address the extremes of the situation.

Quoted by Reuters this week, Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, which studies the likely impacts of the new EPA rules, said, "We've checked and re-checked. The U.S. plan is not enough to achieve the 2020 target" agreed to by the world's nations and designed to hold global temperatures to a 2°C rise or less this century.

And when asked by Hertsgaard, top climate advisers in the Obama administration were "unable to square the president’s energy policies with the 2°C target," offering further evidence that the rhetoric of the president's plan does not comport with the demands made by the scientific warnings Obama claims to understand. Hertsgaard reports:

John Holdren, the president’s science adviser, declined to answer the question. Carol Browner initially assured me that future historians would say Obama “made a real down payment on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.” But asked if Obama’s actions in total, including his massive expansion of fossil-fuel production, were consistent with hitting the target, Browner paused at length. “Wow, I don’t know,” she replied in a doubting tone. “I don’t know about two degrees.”

Podesta [...] went further. Obama grasps the importance of 2°C “in an intellectual way,” he told me. The president is a “very smart guy and he studies these kinds of problems in great depth. His instinct, though, is to try to stretch but not be hysterical.” Even if fully implemented, Podesta said, Obama’s climate policy would not hit the target: “Maybe it gets you on a trajectory to three degrees, but it doesn’t get you two degrees.”

For those looking for example of Obama's schizophrenic position on climate change, there's this line from his speech at UC Irvine on Saturday: "The bottom line is, America produces more renewable energy than ever, more natural gas than anyone." He says this as though they are both the solution to the same problem.

According to his critics—many of whom are climate scientists—the point is this: they are not.


This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Share This Article