Obama on Climate Change: The Trends Are ‘Terrifying’

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The New York Times 2016-09-08 Link

to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.transcriptTIGHT ON OBAMA FOR: My top science advisor John Holdman, periodically will issue some chart or report or graph ah, in the morning meetings, and they’re terrifying. [B-ROLL SOUND UP WAVE CRASH AS PUNCTUATION] OVER SCENIC B-ROLL OF INTERVIEW LOCATION AND MOODY WEATHER SHOTS: Obama: And everybody starts off the day thinking about, okay ah, we—we’ve really gotta get on this, we’ve gotta pay attention to this. TITLE CARD OVER THE ABOVE SCENIC/MOODY SHOTS WIDE OF PATTER TIGHT ON INTERVIEWER: Q: First of all Mr. President, thank you very much for talking to us and doing such a lovely spot. Ah, we’re told you’ve thought a lot about how and why civilizations collapse. And we wanted to ask you, do you believe the threat from climate change is dire enough that it could precipitate the collapse of our civilization? A: Well, I don’t know 00:02:00 That I can you know, look into a crystal ball and know exactly how this plays out. [...] what we do know is that historically, when you see severe environmental strains of one sort or another on cultures, on civilizations, on nations, that the by-products of that are unpredictable and can be very dangerous. 00:02:30 What we know is that if the current projections, the current trend lines on a warming planet continue, it is certainly going to be enormously disruptive worldwide. And just imagine for example, monsoon patterns shifting in south Asian, where you’ve got over a billion people. 00:03:00 If you have even a portion of those billion people displaced, ah, you now have the sorts of refugee crises and potential conflicts that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes. [...] Then you’re looking at a much more dangerous world and severe strains on nation states, on communities, on economies[...]. Q: I mean given the magnitude of that threat, why do you think it’s been so difficult for you to mobilize 00:04:02 Public opinion at home about the necessity of confronting this issue? A: Well the good news is, during the course of my presidency, I think we’ve solidified, ah, in popular opinion the fact that climate change is real, that it’s important, and we should do something about it. Ah, so the problem is not that people don’t believe in climate change, you know, there’s—there are pockets of resistance, ah, particularly in 00:04:30 Certain congressional caucuses. UP SOUND: - someon e in Congress poo-pooing Obama’s climate policies specifically.>>> But you talk to the average person, I think they understand at this point [...] that this is something serious and we gotta do something about it. Translating concern into action is the challenge. And part of what makes climate change difficult is that it ah, is not an instantaneous catastrophic event. It’s a slow-moving 00:05:00 Ah, issue that on a day to day basis people don’t experience and don’t see. [...] And so part of our goal throughout my presidency has been to raise awareness, but also then to 00:06:00 Create frameworks, structures, rules that allow us to take specific action in ways that create economic opportunity and improve people’s wellbeing as opposed to people feeling as if there are these enormous trade-offs that ah, necessarily make life a lot harder for them. <<Obama at ACESA announcement:>> So that we can say, at long last, that this was the moment that we decided to confront America’s energy challange and reclaim America’s future. IN 2009, PRESIDENT OBAMA INTRODUCED the American Clean Energy and Security Act, PROPOSING A “CAP AND TRADE” PLAN WHERE THE GOVERNMENT SETS AN ANNUAL CAP ON GREENHOUSE EMISSIONS, AND ALLOWS BUSINESSES TO TRADE PERMITS ALLOWING THEM TO EXCEED THE LIMITS. THE BILL NEVER PASSED. LATER THAT YEAR, PRESIDENT OBAMA ATTENDED A SUMMIT OF WORLD LEADERS IN COPENHAGEN TO DISCUSS CLIMATE SCIENCE. HIS SPEECH WAS WIDELY CRITICIZED AS A FAILURE TO EMBRACE BOLD MEASURES TO COMBAT CLIMATE CHANGE <<Obama at summit:>> I believe that we can act boldly, and decisively, in the face of this common threat. And that is why I have come here today. TALKS ENDED WITHOUT SIGNIFICANT CHANGES. Q3: Mr. President you tried but failed to take action in your first term. Ah, the cap and trade bill failed in the senate. Ah, the Copenhagen climate change talks ended in collapse. What lessons did you learn, ah, from those episodes? 00:07:30 [...] When cap and trade came up, I was certainly disappointed that ah, many Republicans who previously had said that they were concerned about this suddenly went the other way, as the politics of it shifted. [...] people felt if, you know, we’re hemorrhaging jobs, and the economy is contracting, is this the time for us to be able to move this issue forward aggressively. Ah, but what we did do is to use the model we had created with the auto industry to start thinking how do we engage industry and how do we engage states on a whole set of rules, ah, and steps that even though short of big 00:08:30 Comprehensive legislation can still get the job done. And I think one of the most important things that people should know is that here, in 2016, ah, we’ve actually achieved more carbon emissions than we would have, under the ah, under the cap and trade bill that was presented and went down in the house. So ah, it taught us that there’s just more than one way to skin a cat. 00:10:30 [...] And what I was able to get done in Copenhagen was to at least extract the basic principle that if we’re gonna solve this problem every country has to be involved, not just the wealthy countries, [...] 00:11:00 [...] That seems like a small thing but that was the mechanism whereby we were able in subsequent meetings to begin negotiations with China, ultimately leading to our joint announcement where China said it would set targets and restrain itself. THE NOVEMBER 2014, ANNOUNCEMENT THE PRESIDENT REFERS TO IS A SIGNIFICANT ONE, THE US STATED IT WOULD DOUBLE THE PACE OF YEARLY EMISSIONS REDUCTIONS. AND CHINA, FOR THE FIRST TIME, ANNOUNCED IT WOULD PEAK ITS OWN EMISSIONS. <OBAMA sound-up:>> I commend President Xi, his team and the Chinese government for the commitment they are making to slow, peak and then reverse the course of China’s carbon emissions. Q: I’ve been told that in the—the night before actually, the 2014 US China climate deal was announced that there were a couple of outstanding issues and that some of these were actually worked out between you and President Xi one on one. [...] I was wondering whether there’s anything you can share with us about what your insight was about why ah, the—you know, ah, party leadership in China would be willing to take such painful steps. 00:33:30 [...] Ah, I had been in contact with President Xi prior 00:34:00 To my arrival. Ah and given him a sense of, if you are prepared to do this, here is what we’re gonna be doing, and for us to be able to make a joint announcement, I think would signal the capacity of ah, the US and China to lead the world on an issue of critical importance to everybody. Ah, one of the reasons I think that China was prepared to go further than it 00:34:30 Had been prepared to go previously, is that their overriding concern tends to be political stability. Interestingly, one of their greatest political vulnerabilities is the environment. People who go to Beijing, ah, know that ah, it can be hard to breathe. [...] And so they—the Chinese party leadership recognized that they had to rethink how they approach ah, environmental issues. Ah, and find ways to make that compatible with the growth rates that they need to keep up with their population. And I think we saw that as an opener ah, for us to be able to say 00:35:30 Ah, not only can you address what is increasingly important ah, domestic issue, and that’s air quality. You can also work with us to create a multi-lateral framework you know, that shows China’s emerging leadership on a world stage. // UNABLE TO FIND COMMON GROUND WITH REPUBLICANS, PRESIDENT OBAMA ELECTED TO TAKE UNCONVENTIONAL - SOME REPUBLICANS WOULD SAY UNCONSTITUTIONAL - STEPS. HIS CLEAN POWER PLAN IS AN EXPANSION OF THE REGULATORY OVERSIGHT OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY. <<aug 3 2015, east room of wh, obama announces clean power plan>> OBAMA: I am convinced that no challenge poses a greater threat to our future and future generations than a changing climate. And that’s what brings us here today. Q3: 00:22:33 [...] You’ve gotten a lot of blow-back for this. What are your misgivings about it, and how much do you worry that these will be these creative interpretation of the law will be legally durable? 00:23:30 [...] Well, // if Donald Trump is elected for example, you have a pretty big shift now with the EPA operates and that’s true generally. //There is no doubt that ah, when you have a legislative ratification of a policy, that it is permanent, ah, it is less subject to ah, reversal. But keep in mind that what happens, when we come up with smart policies and regulations that prove to work, 00:24:00 Ah, you start getting buy-in from utilities, and you start getting buy-in from states, and you start getting buy-in from those who’ve invested, ah, private capital in this existing system. It becomes stickier. It’s harder then to reverse because you know, the country’s gone down a different path. 00:24:32 [...] So all these ah, individual ah, and collective steps that have been taken, they lock in, they embed us moving ah, in a certain direction. And for somebody then to come in and say well we’re gonna tear this out 00:26:00 Root and branch, ah, it’s not just a matter now of reversing what I’ve done, it’s a matter of reversing what a whole lot of people are—are seeing works. Q3: Well you talked about all this buy-in from utilities, states, industry. But one of the things that is necessary for the clean power plan to be implemented is for it to stand up to 00:27:03 Legal challenge. Ah, the supreme court has put a halt on implementing it right now. And one of the most prominent critics of the legal structure of the clean power plan is your own mentor at Harvard Law School, Larry Tribe. He has said that your use of the clean air act to put forth the clean power plan is a vast legal overreach, he has compared it—direct quote—to burning the constitution. What is your 00:27:30 Reaction to Professor Tribe’s legal criticism of—of your plan? 00:28:00 I can say that legally, he’s wrong. And ah, I think most legal commentators also think he’s wrong. I think he’s in the minority in the view that he’s taken. But ultimately what really counts is what the DC circuit ah, and ah, if it gets there, the supreme court thinks about it. And I’m very confident that the clean power plan will be upheld. Q3: If it is upheld, there will be some stark economic tradeoffs if it’s implemented. If it stands up to legal challenges, essentially the clean power plan will eventually end demand for coal power. What do you owe the workers and the people in coal communities who will be hurt, who will lose their jobs, who will lose their livelihoods as a result of this? A: Well I think we as a country owe everybody opportunity. And if they’re in a sector that because of the necessities of doing something about climate change are gonna be adversely impacted, then we need to be there for them. // So what we owe ah, the remaining people who are making a living ah, mining coal, is to be honest with them, and to say that, look, the economy is shifting, how we use energy is shifting, that’s gonna be true here but it’s also gonna be true internationally. And how can we take your ah, skills and talents and work ethic that you’ve shown in this coal mine and use it to build some wind turbines, or use it to install ah, solar panels, or help us to rebuild a smart grid that would make our power distribution a lot more efficient. // I think there are a lot of folks in West Virginia and Kentucky, probably southern Illinois who do think that the reason they’re having a tough time is because ah, Obama and the EPA. And now of course Hillary Clinton, ah, you know, we’re all trying to destroy them. Ah, but what I want to do, and I think we should all want to do, is to have an honest conversation about how do we make sure that ah, these communities thrive with the energies—ah—industries of the 21st century, not of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. and MIDWAY ATOLL — Seventy-four years ago, a naval battle off this remote spit of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean changed the course of World War II. Last week, President Obama flew here to swim with Hawaiian monk seals and draw attention to a quieter war — one he has waged against rising seas, freakish storms, deadly droughts and other symptoms of a planet choking on its own fumes.Bombs may not be falling. The sound of gunfire does not concentrate the mind. What Mr. Obama has seen instead are the charts and graphs of a warming planet. “And they’re terrifying,” he said in a recent interview in Honolulu.“What makes climate change difficult is that it is not an instantaneous catastrophic event,” he said. “It’s a slow-moving issue that, on a day-to-day basis, people don’t experience and don’t see.”Climate change, Mr. Obama often says, is the greatest long-term threat facing the world, as well as a danger as droughts, storms, heat waves and flooding. More than health care, more than righting a sinking economic ship, more than the historic first of an African-American president, he believes that his efforts to slow the warming of the planet will be the most consequential legacy of his presidency.During his seven and a half years in office, Mr. Obama said, a majority of Americans have come to believe “that climate change is real, that it’s important and we should do something about it.” He enacted rules to cut planet-heating emissions across much of the United States economy, from to . He was a central broker of the , the first accord committing nearly every country to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.But while climate change has played to Mr. Obama’s highest ideals — critics would call them messianic impulses — it has also exposed his weaknesses, namely an inability to forge consensus, even within his own party, on a problem that demands a bipartisan response.He acknowledged that his rallying cry to save the planet had not galvanized Americans. He has been harshly criticized for policies that objectors see as abuses of executive power and far too burdensome for the economy.That has made Mr. Obama’s record on climate curiously contradictory, marked by historic achievements abroad and frustrating setbacks at home. The threat of global warming inspired Mr. Obama to conduct some of the most masterful diplomacy of his presidency, which has bound the United States into a web of agreements and obligations overseas. Yet his determination to act alone inflamed his opponents, helped polarize the debate on climate change and will carry a significant economic cost.Mr. Obama chalks up the contradictions both to politics and to the amorphous, unseen nature of the threat.“It feels like, ‘Meh, we can put this off a little bit,’” he said.The president spoke in a cottage on a Marine base that overlooks Kaneohe Bay in his home state, Hawaii. Angry waves crashed on the rocks below the house, the sea churned by one of two hurricanes spinning close to the island. Hawaii, as one of Mr. Obama’s climate advisers pointed out, normally does not get back-to-back hurricanes.“When you see severe environmental strains of one sort or another on cultures, on civilizations, on nations, the byproducts of that are unpredictable and can be very dangerous,” Mr. Obama said. “If the current projections, the current trend lines on a warming planet continue, it is certainly going to be enormously disruptive worldwide.”Eight years ago, when Mr. Obama ran for president against Senator John McCain of Arizona, both men had essentially the same position on global warming: It is caused by humans, and Congress should enact legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions and force polluters to buy and trade permits that would slowly lower overall emissions of climate-warming gases.But in the summer of 2010, a cap-and-trade bill Mr. Obama had tried to push through Congress , blocked by senators from both parties.“One would have hoped for transformational leadership, in the way J.F.K. would have done it,” said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.That domestic defeat was compounded by failure on the world stage after efforts to enact a highly anticipated United Nations climate change treaty in Copenhagen fell apart in 2009.By the fall of 2010, Tea Party “super PACs” supported by the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch had seized on cap-and-trade as a political weapon, with attacks that helped Republicans take control of the House.Polls showed that few Americans thought of climate change as a high public policy priority, and the percentage of voters who accepted the reality that it was caused by humans had tumbled.“There is the notion that there’s something I might have done that would prevent Republicans to deny climate change,” Mr. Obama said. “I guess hypothetically, maybe there was some trick up my sleeve that would have cast a spell on the Republican caucus and changed their minds.”In fact, some Republicans, including Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, were willing to go forward with a more limited climate bill that would have restricted emissions only from power plants. But the president’s own party would not unify even around that, with Democrats from industrial and coal states digging in against him. Ironically, Mr. Obama would end up with regulations that narrowly target power plant emissions.“The White House wanted 60 votes on climate, and they weren’t interested in Republican votes,” Mr. Alexander said in an interview. “Now it’s back to power plant only. The lesson here is that if people who want a result would be a little bit more flexible, they might actually get one.”In defeat, the president appeared cowed. Campaigning against Mitt Romney in 2012, he barely mentioned climate change.But soon after Election Day, Mr. Obama interrupted a broad discussion with historians about the country’s challenges with a surprising assertion. Douglas Brinkley, a historian who attended the session, recalled, “Out of nowhere, he said, ‘If we don’t do anything on the climate issue, all bets are off.’”Mr. Obama, who understood that a legislative push would be fruitless, told his advisers to figure out how to enact deep emissions cuts . They found a way through the Clean Air Act of 1970, which gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to issue regulations on dangerous pollutants.In 2014, Mr. Obama unveiled the first draft of what would become the Clean Power Plan: that could lead to the closing of hundreds of coal-fired power plants.The move enraged critics, , the majority leader, whose state relies heavily on coal.Another critic, Laurence H. Tribe, to “burning the Constitution” — a charge that might have stung, since Mr. Tribe, a liberal constitutional scholar, was a mentor to Mr. Obama at Harvard Law School.Mr. Obama dismissed the criticism as the voice of Mr. Tribe’s client, Peabody Energy, the nation’s largest coal company, which in April. “You know, I love Larry,” he said, but “when it comes to energy issues, Larry has a history of representing fossil fuel industries in big litigation cases.”The legality of the climate rules by the Supreme Court, the composition of which of the presidential election. Deep-pocketed corporations will not give up the legal fight easily, even after a Supreme Court decision, and Republicans in Congress will continue their legislative attacks. If the rules survive, they will almost certainly cost the coal industry thousands of jobs.“What we owe the remaining people who are making a living mining coal is to be honest with them,” Mr. Obama said, “and to say that, look, the economy is shifting. How we use energy is shifting. That’s going to be true here, but it’s also going to be true internationally.”Few people would have described Mr. Obama as a climate evangelist when he ran for the White House in 2008. While he invoked the rising seas and heating planet to thrill his young supporters, he did not have the long record of climate activism of Al Gore or John Kerry, who is now his secretary of state. Like many things with Mr. Obama, his evolution on climate was essentially an intellectual journey.Mr. Obama immersed himself in the scientific literature, which left little doubt that the planet was warming at an accelerating rate. “My top science adviser, John Holdren, periodically will issue some chart or report or graph in the morning meetings,” he said, “and they’re terrifying.”The morning Mr. Obama unveiled the final version of the Clean Power Plan last year, he summoned his senior climate adviser, Brian Deese, to the Oval Office. Mr. Deese expected that the president would hand him some last-minute changes to his speech. Instead, he brought up an article in the journal Science on melting permafrost.The research not only documented faster increases in temperatures, but also drew direct links between fossil fuel emissions and .Mr. Obama scrutinized reports like the , which tied climate change to events like and longer, hotter heat waves in the Southwest.“More and more, there are events that are happening that are astoundingly unusual, that knock your socks off, like the flooding in Louisiana,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University. “Those are the kinds of events where it’s becoming possible to draw attribution.”Benjamin J. Rhodes, one of the president’s closest aides, recalled Mr. Obama talking about “,” Jared Diamond’s 2005 best seller, which explored the environmental changes that wiped out ancient societies like Easter Island and discussed how modern equivalents like climate change and overpopulation could yield the same destruction.The president’s Pacific roots also came into play. In Honolulu last week, he told a meeting of Pacific Island leaders that few people understood the stakes of climate change better than residents of their part of the planet. Crops are withering , he noted. Kiribati is buying property in another country for the day that its own land . And villagers in Fiji have been forced from their homes by high seas. in South Asia could affect a billion people who depend on low-lying agriculture, Mr. Obama said in his interview.“If you have even a portion of those billion people displaced,” he said, “you now have the sorts of refugee crises and potential conflicts that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.”“That,” he added, “promises to make life a lot more difficult for our children and grandchildren.”Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton never seem to tire of telling the story of Copenhagen: In December 2009, with the climate conference on the verge of failure, the two learned of a meeting of the leaders of Brazil, China, India and South Africa, from which they had been pointedly excluded. Elbowing their way past a Chinese security guard, they crashed the meeting, and over the course of 90 minutes of tense negotiations with the abashed leaders, they to set goals for lowering emissions.The Europeans, who had been cut out of the talks, derided the deal as toothless, but Mr. Obama learned from the experience. A global climate accord could not simply be a compact among developed economies, he said. It had to include the major developing economies, even if they resented being held to standards that had never applied to the club of wealthy nations. And any agreement had to be led by the two largest emitters, the United States and China.Mr. Obama set about persuading President Xi Jinping of China to join the United States in setting ambitious reduction targets for carbon emissions. Tensions were already high over China’s , and the United States was balking at China’s slow-motion . A casual, get-acquainted between Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi at the Sunnylands estate in California in June 2013 had failed to break the ice.But the meeting did produce one headline: an agreement to explore ways to reduce emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, known as HFCs, potent planet-warming chemicals found in refrigerants. In hindsight, it would prove significant. The is expected to be ratified next month in Rwanda.“It was a place Obama and Xi found some common ground,” said John D. Podesta, a chief of staff to President Bill Clinton whom Mr. Obama recruited to lead his climate efforts in his second term. (Mr. Podesta is now the chairman of Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign.)Mr. Podesta and Todd Stern, the State Department’s climate envoy, began arduous negotiations with China. They were backed by Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama, who sent Mr. Xi a letter with a proposal in which the United States would pledge to increase its target for reducing carbon emissions by 2025 if the Chinese pledged to cap and then gradually reduce their emissions.China had historically resisted such agreements, but the air pollution there had become so bad, Mr. Obama noted, that the most-visited Twitter page in China was the maintained by the United States Embassy in Beijing.“One of the reasons I think that China was prepared to go further than it had been prepared to go previously,” Mr. Obama said, “is that their overriding concern tends to be political stability. Interestingly, one of their greatest political vulnerabilities is the environment. People who go to Beijing know that it can be hard to breathe.”The Chinese were also swayed by in 2014 of his regulations to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, which gave Mr. Kerry and his team of climate diplomats the leverage they needed in months of meetings with China. On Nov. 11, 2014, after a quiet stroll across a bridge in the Chinese leadership compound beside the Forbidden City, Mr. Xi and Mr. Obama .“By locking in China,” Mr. Obama said, “it now allowed me to go to India and South Africa and Brazil and others and say to them: ‘Look, we don’t expect countries with big poverty rates and relatively low per-capita carbon emissions to do exactly the same thing that the United States or Germany or other advanced countries are doing. But you’ve got to do something.’”A little more than a year later, in Paris, the United States led negotiations among 195 countries that resulted in . And this past weekend in Hangzhou, China, Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi their two nations to the Paris accord. For Mr. Obama, it was not just redemption for Copenhagen, but a vindication of his theory of the United States’ role in the world.“There are certain things that the United States can do by itself,” Mr. Obama said. “But if we’re going to actually solve a problem, then our most important role is as a leader, vision setter and convener.”To his successor, Mr. Obama leaves an ambitious and divisive legacy: a raft of new emissions rules that promise to transform the United States economy but are likely to draw continuing fire from Republicans, and an aggressive — some say unrealistic — pledge made in Paris to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050.All of this, he acknowledges, could be undone at the ballot box. “I think it’s fair to say that if Donald Trump is elected, for example, you have a pretty big shift now with how the E.P.A. operates,” he said.Mrs. Clinton has embraced Mr. Obama’s go-it-alone approach, promising to meet and in some cases exceed his goals without trying to pass cap-and-trade legislation. She is proposing marquee projects like installing 500 million solar panels by 2020 and giving states and cities $60 billion to invest in energy-efficient public transportation and buildings.“It will be first-order business,” Mr. Podesta said.But Mrs. Clinton will face the same partisan fire Mr. Obama has. He noted that, like him, Mrs. Clinton for acknowledging that coal mining would have a declining role in a 21st-century economy. Mr. Obama’s bet is that as his regulations get woven into the fabric of the economy, they will be harder for anyone to unwind. He says that his successor should promote past victories, including those of Republicans like Richard M. Nixon and George Bush.For his part, Mr. Obama said he planned to stay active in fighting climate change in his post-presidential life. During his tour of the wildlife on Midway, he paused to make .“My hope,” he said, “is that maybe as ex-president I can have a little more influence on some of my Republican friends, who I think up until now have been resistant to the science.”