Laugh or Cry? Obama’s New Commitment on Climate Change

By Rachel Smolker, cross-posted from Huffington Post

In his inaugural address, President Obama spoke eloquently about his intent to address climate change, saying: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Following on, the right-wing deniers predictably flew into a frenzy of obnoxious blather, largely serving to clog up the media. Meanwhile the liberals, progressives and enviros cheered with glee, as if the mere mention of the word “climate” were a big happy victory, a frankly pathetic display that I can only imagine the right-wing deniers found amusing. The spectrum of responses is a clear reflection of the extreme dysfunction of, most especially, Washington D.C. Even as Sandy smashed NYC to smithereens and prolonged drought decimated crops across the Midwest, the leader of the country most responsible for this frightening mess is so cowed by his detractors as to feel it necessary to wait until after his reelection to even mention that seven-letter word? Oh yay.

For climate justice activists, the question is: Should we laugh or should we cry? It has certainly been disturbing to watch Obama, facing the greatest threat to life on Earth ever (yes, far greater even than the economic crisis) fail to even utter that word. But, we are also aware that when he has in fact stepped up to the plate on climate, it has not usually been pretty. For example, in 2009, when, at the eleventh hour he flew to the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen to push through, via the back rooms, a “made in the U.S.” deal that removed any teeth from the negotiated agreement that had been painstakingly hammered out in accordance with participatory UN protocols. That showing in the international climate debate followed on the heels of years of U.S. interference and obstructionism, remarkable given that the we are not even a signatory to the Kyoto protocol. Going back even further into history prior to Copenhagen, there was the U.S. role in demanding (against the will of many other countries at the time) that the main approach to reducing greenhouse gases be a market-based approach: carbon trade, which has subsequently and predictably, entirely failed. A headline of the Financial Times reads:”EU Carbon Prices Crash to Record Low.”

So the question is: What will our emboldened president offer up this time? Will it be more false solutions intended to create an impression of doing something while really just ensuring more profitable business opportunities for the 1 percent? A good indication this is likely is Obama’s “Blueprint for a New Bioeconomy.” In sum, that plan is to maintain business as usual by simply converting from fossil to biological carbon — that means running cars on biofuels, packaging our stuff in bioplastics, dousing ourselves and the planet with biochemicals, treating subsequent illnesses with bio-pharmaceuticals. All that will be required is astronomical quantities of land, water, soil and nutrients — several planet’s worth. It will also require a biotech industry free-for-all. Their role is to deliver GMO crops that “make more biomass” and also synthetic microbes that will magically convert all that biomass into all the products and goods we presumably must buy and sell to ensure that the economy keeps on growing ad infinitum. A big part of the “new bioeconomy blueprint” is to remove regulatory “barriers,” so, for example, synthetic microbes and GMO crops can be quickly and easily approved and sent on their way to commercialization. We know how well the already slack regulatory process works. Just this week we learned that regulators have belatedly found viral genes present in many GMO food crops that is likely to result in greater susceptibility to all manner of viral infections for both humans and plants. Oops. So now we should further loosen regulation even as we introduce even more risky synthetic organisms — microbes capable of liquefying plant life?

The arrogance underlying the entire concept of a “bioeconomy” is phenomenal. We are told that we shall ” harness the biological sciences for the benefit of the Nation.” The whole concept illustrates utter disregard, disrespect for and misunderstanding of nature — as if we so mightily master all of creation that it is entirely under our control to be precisely and predictably manipulated and engineered for our own purposes. No problem. Have faith!

Further we are enticed to accept the idea with claims that the bioeconomy will provide all manner of new jobs and economic opportunities, while freeing us from our dependence on the increasingly unfriendly world community of nations from whence we currently derive our fossil fuel energy. But of course we shall need their biomass, if not their oil.

Other than the bioeconomy vision, what else might we expect from Obama? The last comprehensive climate legislation that was floated seriously in D.C. was the 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act. James Hansen along with many in the environmental justice community referred to it as “worse than nothing.” Among other features, the bill sought to establish a cap and trade scheme for emissions trading. Hopefully, the total collapse of the EU emissions trading scheme since then should give lawmakers pause. But we can be just about certain that market-based approaches will prevail, and one way or another, we will yet again face a charade of false solutions whose primary purpose is not to effectively address the problem but rather turn the crisis into an opportunity to capitalize — maintaining and enhancing the excessive profits of big corporations who got us into this mess — oil, coal, gas, nukes, big agriculture and biotech.

This may serve to create an appearance of doing something to forestall the nightmarish consequences of our failure, but Earth, the climate and future generations will not be fooled. My kids tell me I am “too negative.” I try to encourage them in that perception rather than embracing the realities of what we are doing to their future. A few days ago my daughter exclaimed “you have the most important job of all (as climate activist) — and I am counting on you.” Well, I hate to be such a downer, but frankly, difficult to join the squadrons cheering as Obama spoke “the word.” When he takes, as his first of many bold steps the executive decision to halt the Keystone XL pipeline, referred to as the “fuse leading to the ultimate climate time bomb”, then l will in fact, at long last, stand up and cheer. So what will it be, Mr. President: more bioeconomy B.S. or diffusion of the bomb? Remember your own words about “betraying future generations”?