On Monday morning, President Obama stood before a roomful of White House officials and environmental advocates to announce the release of the Clean Power Plan, his long awaited regulations on emissions from coal fired power plants.
The President spoke of the "moral necessity" of climate action and the obligation he felt to protect the planet for his daughters and future generations. Earlier on in the speech, Obama also reflected on what sets climate apart from other issues, saying:
[M]ost of the time, the issues we deal with are ones that are temporally bound and we can anticipate things getting better if we just kind of plug away at it, even incrementally. But this is one of those rare issues -- because of its magnitude, because of its scope -- that if we don't get it right we may not be able to reverse, and we may not be able to adapt sufficiently. There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change.
This section stood out to me, because one of our major critiques of President Obama on climate has been that he's far too much of an incrementalist. Obama talks boldly and eloquently about the need to combat "the greatest crisis our generation has ever faced" -- this was the guy, after all, who said that in his administration "the rise of the oceans would begin to fall and the planet would begin to heal" -- but when it comes to actually taking action, the administration consistently falls well short of their rhetoric.
At times, the disconnect has been staggering. Back in 2012, during one of the hottest summers on record, Obama boasted that his administration had built enough oil and gas pipeline to "encircle the Earth and then some." This summer, while preparing for the release of the Clean Power Plan, the administration instructed the Bureau of Land Management to increase coal leasing in the Powder River Basin, a move that New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert correctly labeled as "self-sabotaging." Now, we hear that the President will soon head up to Alaska to talk about the impacts of climate change... just weeks after he gave the greenlight for Shell to drill up more oil in the Arctic.
As Bill McKibben wrote in the Times, this gap between "the talk" and "the walk" can be its own form of climate denial.
"This is not climate denial of the Republican sort, where people simply pretend the science isn't real," he wrote. "This is climate denial of the status quo sort, where people accept the science, and indeed make long speeches about the immorality of passing on a ruined world to our children. They just deny the meaning of the science, which is that we must keep carbon in the ground."
Which brings us to Keystone XL. For the last few weeks, the D.C. rumor mill has been chock-full with predictions of when President Obama will make his final decision. Not a day goes by that I don't get an inquiry from a reporter about if we've gotten any hint from the administration on the decision (trust me, the people who handcuffed themselves to the White House fence protesting the project will probably be the last to know). The writers over at Politico's Morning Energy recently bet that a decision could come as soon as this Friday.
We'd welcome a decision on Keystone XL and so should the White House. The pipeline offers President Obama his best chance yet to close the gap between his climate rhetoric and climate reality. The climate impacts of the pipeline are clear: Analysts say that over the project's lifetime, Keystone XL would release the cumulative carbon emissions of 46 coal fired power plants. Worse yet, if approved, the pipeline could result in a dramatic expansion of tar sands production, an outcome that former NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen famously labeled "game over" for the climate. Simply put, the President can't talk about the need to reduce CO2 emissions on Monday and then go approve a few dozen new coal plants worth of them on Friday.
Keystone remains the clearest test of whether or not the President is willing to do what is truly necessary to address the climate crisis: Keep fossil fuels in the ground. It's the simplest way to see whether Obama has the courage it takes to stand up to Big Oil and say "no."
A pipeline rejection would help cement the President's climate legacy. An approval would completely unravel it.
It was four years ago this August when over 1,000 of us took part in a two week sit-in at the White House to try and elevate Keystone XL as a key test of President Obama's leadership. Since then, millions of people have joined the fight, turning out for major rallies and sending in hundreds of thousands of signatures urging the White House to make the right call. The campaign has helped transform the climate movement, helping us become a growing political force capable of pulling off historic events like last September's People's Climate March, which brought over 400,000 people to the streets of New York City and turned out hundreds of thousands more worldwide.
Over the years, we've done everything we can to think about how to open up the political space necessary for climate progress. And over the months and years ahead, we'll push ourselves to do even more. It's high time President Obama joined us. As he said himself, "There is such a thing as being too late..."