We should compare Obama’s policies on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) to a really good set of policies for the purpose, if we intend to get some sense of how good his policies are. Let’s start with an idea of the scale of change that a good AGW policy for the United States should achieve.

“A paper published in Energy Policy on February 20th by Michel den Elzen and colleagues examines new information on likely future emissions trajectories in developing countries. This includes recent clarification of assumptions and conditions related to developing country pledges. In addition, countries have also come forward with further information on their emissions projections. As a result, the report finds that developed countries must reduce their emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 if we are to have a medium chance of limiting warming to 2°C, thus preventing some of climate change’s worst impacts.”


“A 450 ppm CO2e goal is associated with a 26 to 78 percent risk of overshooting a 2ºC goal (Meinshausen 2005).”

Quotes above are taken from: http://insights.wri.org/news/2013/03/developed-nations-must-reduce-emissions-half-2020-says-new-study.

“If we in the United Kingdom are to bear our fair share of dealing with climate change, we must cut our emissions by 87% in 24 years.” This is taken from an article by George Monbiot, http://www.monbiot.com/2006/09/21/an-87-cut-by-2030/.

Clearly, since our fossil-fueled industrial economy is the creator of af almost all the AGW emissions we can directly control, cutting emissions so much and so rapidly requires drastic changes in how that economy operates, and as quickly as possible.

But wait, as numerous TV commercials have said, there’s more. The science is uncertain. The 450 ppm target gives us up to a 78% chance of exceeding the 2ºC goal. James Hansen “… has come to the conclusion that we must reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 ppm in order to avoid disaster for coming generations.” [http://www.stormsofmygrandchildren.com/climate_catastrophe_solutions.html]

If 350 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the target rather than 450, the scale and speed of the changes needed is even more extreme.

We may not know exactly where we ought to end up, or exactly how we are going to get there. There’s no guarantee of success.

It should still be clear that we need to develop an economy that uses much less energy overall than it does at present. We ought to start moving in that direction as rapidly as possible, even while further studies are being conducted. Also, we ought to be careful not to trash the environment in the short term while we are trying to keep AGW from trashing it in the long term.

A really good set of policies for addressing global warming would develop a sustainable economy and shrink the emitting economy while making the transition minimally painful for individuals. For instance, a comprehensive proposal for addressing global warming might look like this:

Develop a sustainable economy:

  • Repeal the Haliburton loophole
  • Require CAFOs to treat the sewage they generate
  • Prohibit genetically engineered food not proven safe
  • Develop public transportation
  • Lead the way in energy efficient building, both new and retrofitted
  • Encourage small scale, low-energy, high employment food growing

Shrink the emitting economy:

  • Substantial carbon dioxide tax and dividend
  • 100 x CO2 tax (molecule for molecule) on methane leakage
  • Prohibit energy exports
  • 50% of gross depletion fee on all mining – oil, gas, coal, copper, iron, uranium, tungsten, etc.
  • No depletion fee on recycled material; i.e., encourage mining of former landfills, recycling building materials, etc.

Make the transition minimally painful:

  • Universal single-payer health care
  • Free education for all who can use it
  • Minimum wage is a living wage
  • Guaranteed minimum income

The key point is, to address global warming, it is necessary to transform the greenhouse gas emitting economy, and quickly. We need to drastically reduce burning fossil fuels whether clean alternative sources of energy are available or not. Of course every attempt will be made to develop clean sources of energy, but that may take decades or longer. In the meantime we need to cut way back on our use of planes, trains, automobiles and electricity generators in their present forms.

Some of the steps listed above may not need to be immediate. Other steps not included may be needed. For instance, Hansen is of the opinion that nuclear power is useful because it does not generate greenhouse gases. The experiences of Chernobyl and Fukushima have convinced others that nuclear power has the potential to trash our environment by other means than global warming; that, therefore, existing plants should be shut down and the spent fuel safely stored.

In any case, no nuclear reactor not already under construction will be completed by 2020, and none not already in early planning stages will be completed by 2030. All that is possible for new nuclear in that time frame is a huge plume of carbon emissions from making steel, concrete, wiring and new fuel rods. It’s not the right thibng to do if you are supposed to be cutting carbon emissions in that time frame. New nuclear power is an issue we can and should postpone until we have actually created a sustainable economy.

The question we started with is, how should we rate Obama’s AGW policy?

Obama has not proposed any sudden or radical change to the fossil fuel economy. He has proposed only some minimal and marginal changes in the context of an overall plan for a growing that economy – exactly the opposite of what is needed. He promotes fracking for gas in the face of studies showing fracking is a worse generator of greenhouse gases than coal. He left the door open for completing the Keystone XL pipeline. He carefully avoided mentioning the Enbridge pipeline which, when its expansion is complete, will bring just as much tar sands oil into the United States as the keystone XL.

He has made a speech about climate change, setting minimal goals and promising marginal change plus, of course, further studies. Where an effective policy is called for, he has given us mostly hand-waving. He has created an illusion of progress for those who are easily fooled. If you expected more, then you have to be disappointed.


Art Myatt