If Climate Change is a 'Weapon of Mass Destruction,' Why Promote Carbon Proliferation?

If Climate Change is a 'Weapon of Mass Destruction,' Why Promote Carbon Proliferation?

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a call for climate action that attracted considerable attention because of its forcefulness. Speaking in Jakarta, Indonesia, Kerry rebuked climate deniers, referring to them as "a tiny minority of shoddy scientists...and extreme ideologues." He described the economic costs and catastrophic implications of inaction. Most strikingly, he suggested that climate change is "the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction."

"It doesn't keep us safe if the United States secures its nuclear arsenal, while other countries fail to prevent theirs from falling into the hands of terrorists," Kerry said. Similarly, a serious response to climate change requires that all countries break their fossil fuel addiction. "At the end of the day, emissions coming from anywhere in the world threaten the future for people everywhere in the world," Kerry said.

Kerry's nuclear analogy is useful for understanding the Obama's administration's climate agenda--and its glaring omission. The plan is built on three pillars: curbing domestic carbon pollution (or, securing our own nuclear arsenal), preparing for the impacts of climate change (building fallout shelters) and leading efforts to address climate change internationally (encouraging disarmament.)

All of that nonproliferation work would be undercut if the US sold weapons-grade uranium to the countries it was asking not to build a bomb. In effect, that is what the United States is doing with fossil fuels. While the administration takes steps to cut down emissions at home--via investment in renewables, tighter efficiency standards for power plants and vehicles--Obama continues to promote an "all of the above" energy strategy that ensures oil and coal companies profit from selling American-made dirty energy abroad. It's one of the most critical inconsistencies among the president's climate policies.

Source: Duncan Clark, TheGuardian.com

Consider coal. The Environmental Protection Agency's highly anticipated power plant rules are expected to dramatically hasten the shift from coal to natural gas and renewables in the domestic utility sector; internationally, Obama has said he wants to halt public financing for new coal-powered plants. But under Obama's leadership the Bureau of Land Management has continued to lease federal land in Wyoming and Montana to Big Coal at below-market prices, propping up the industry while cheating taxpayers of an estimated $30 billion over the past thirty years. Now coal companies are lobbying for a rail-to-port pathway through the Pacific Northwest that would carry roughly as much carbon as the Keystone XL pipeline to foreign markets, and the Army Corps of Engineers has declined to conduct a full environmental impact study of the proposal.

One could argue that US exports are simply meeting demand that other countries would fill in our absence. But the United States has been working to make sure that demand doesn't dry up, and that markets remain open for our dirty energy. As Tim Dickenson reported in Rolling Stone, US trade representative Michael Froman has tried to weaken new fuel standards in Europe that are intended to reduce emissions, largely out of concern for refiners of tar sands oil.

Making less, not more, fossil fuel available should be a critical part of the climate agenda; we know we have to keep 80 percent of global reserves in the ground to have a chance of avoiding the most damaging effects of climate change. "The solution is making the right choices on energy policy," Kerry said in Jakarta. "With a few smart choices, we can ensure that clean energy is the most attractive investment in the global energy sector. To do this, governments and international financial institutions need to stop providing incentives for the use of energy sources like coal and oil." To the contrary, by increasing production and exports, the United States is encouraging more consumption and more fossil fuel investment. And that makes it more difficult for renewables to compete.

The same can be said of the Keystone XL pipeline. Currently, Alberta's tar sands--which hold some of the dirtiest oil in the world--are considered risky investments, because they are difficult to produce and transport. As the oil industry, the Canadian government and financial analysts have made clear, the pipeline is the best way to get oil to international markets. Approving it, then, would clearly incentivize both the production and consumption of tar sands oil.

Kerry's speech in Jakarta was bookended by two climate-related announcements by Obama. Last Friday, the president visited drought-stricken farmland in California where he warned of the likely increase in extreme weather events as global temperatures rise, and proposed a billon-dollar fund to help communities prepare for them; on Tuesday, Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to draft new fuel efficiency regulations for trucks and other commercial vehicles.

There's some speculation that these moves are intended to soften the blow if Obama approves KXL. But as the administration continues to stress the urgency of climate change and other countries' responsibility to make "the right choices on energy policy," it will be increasingly difficult to justify approving the pipeline. We can applaud Kerry for criticizing crackpots in Congress and phony scientists, and for being forthright about the danger of inaction. But rhetorical courage is only useful if it translates into courageous action. To return to Kerry's nuclear analogy: dismantling a bit of our arsenal makes us little safer, and gives us little credibility to ask others to abandon theirs, if we drop a bomb in the process.

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