Obama’s misleading climate optimism

President Obama is in Science today playing chess with himself about climate policy. More specifically, about whether we can avert catastrophe without it. Obama’s predicament is understandable, because it’s everyone’s predicament right now: with the Trump inauguration now right around the corner, the question is not whether but to what extent the Obama administration’s environmental regulatory apparatus will be dismantled. On the one hand, Obama wants to underline the extreme badness of this dismantling; on the other hand, he doesn’t want to leave office admitting publicly the severe jeopardy in which Trump’s election places his legacy on climate change.

So it’s disappointing but not surprising that his argument for why climate progress is heading down the pipeline come hell or high water is saddled with internal contradictions and uncharacteristic unclarity.

Obama’s first subsection declares, in remarkably stark terms, “Economies grow; emissions fall.” This claim, that GDP accumulation, technological progress, and other interpretations of that vaguest of phrases, “economic growth,” drive a “decoupling” of human activity and environmental consequences, has long been a staple of “Cornucopian” arguments against the urgency of robust regulatory climate action.

It is thus rather stunning to see Obama parrot it in the pages of Science, and even more stunning to read on and find him actually making exactly the converse argument: that aggressive policy change to encourage decarbonization has economic benefits. Obama presents a compelling case that left unchecked, climate change will have devastating economic impacts; that compliance with his administration’s energy efficiency standards can help businesses save money; and that the renewable energy sector is a more promising site for job creation efforts than the fossil fuel industry. Fair enough, but this is manifestly not a case for the principle that “economies grow; emissions fall.”

This tortured rhetorical strategy — regurgitating, in the name of optimism, well-tread right-wing talking points about the superfluity of federal climate policy and then going on to make a completely different argument — continues throughout the article. So we have Obama crediting the success of his administration’s interventions in the clean energy sector to the autonomous decision-making of private businesses on the breathtakingly vacuous grounds that “ultimately, these investments are being made by firms.” We have Obama enumerating the ways in which federal policy was able to drive increased renewable energy use before suggesting that the credit actually lies with apparently endogenous changes in “market incentives” and concluding that the states can pick up any slack on the federal level. And finally we have Obama asserting that, internationally, the climate action genie is now out of the bottle with or without U.S. leadership before concluding with a desperate plea for remaining in the Paris agreement in order to hold other signatory countries accountable.

When Obama’s argument isn’t running aground on his own far better counterarguments, it is buoyed by a healthy dose of wishful thinking. Obama massively underestimates how slim (or nonexistent) the margin of error on climate change actually is. For instance, he proudly cites an estimate that the U.S.’s energy-sector carbon emissions did not increase from 2014-2015. That’s obviously better than an increase. But in order to meet the Paris agreement’s 2 degree (Celsius) temperature increase limit, beyond which lurk severe and likely irreversible impacts, the entire developed world is looking at something liketen percent annual decline in all greenhouse gas emissions. Next to this benchmark Obama’s ballyhooed “halt in emissions growth” looks quite flimsy. And, pace Obama, we are unlikely to see even that meager progress subsist into the Trump administration.

It’s one thing for Obama to be reluctant to admit exactly what Trump’s election portends for climate change. But it’s another thing for him to promulgate the logic of center-right pseudo-solutions as grounds for his optimism. Natural gas isn’t going to fix climate change. The wisdom of the market isn’t going to fix climate change. The only thing that might fix climate change is a near-unprecedented, federal government-led, economy-wide mobilization towards renewable energy that keeps all existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground — an initiative that we will never see as long as Trump is in the White House. If Obama wants to leave a lasting legacy on climate change, that is the change he’ll have to fight for as ex-president.