climate speech’s highs and lows

June 25, 2013


President Obama says we have to do something about this heat.
//screen grab from

President Obama stood in the heat today and talked for nearly an hour about climate change. He outlined his plans to cut carbon pollution, to prepare for the chaos already in the pipeline and to lead the world in “a coordinated assault on a changing climate.”    

There was so much to love in this speech.  For starters, it’s still exhilarating to now have a president who talks about science. In this speech, Obama made the connection between the burning of fossil fuels, a warming planet and droughts, deluges, heat waves and fires. He talked about how costs are mounting for these catastrophes already. He said “carbon pollution” 30 times, a rebuke to Republicans who believe it is their patriotic duty to stick up for carbon dioxide. He was outraged that power plants get to pollute for free. He said that we, our children and our children’s children will live with the consequences of what we do today.  He opened the door, just possibly, to saying no to the Keystone XL pipeline, even though he was not expected to even mention it. He said “divest,” sending all atwitter on Twitter. Heck, I even loved how Obama rolled up his sleeves and mopped not just his brow but his entire face. It’s hot out there.

On the other hand: He called natural gas a transition fuel and a clean energy source. Not good. 

So, here are my bests and worsts from Obama’s climate change speech at Georgetown University. (The White House website has many climate-related charts, too.)  

Best quotes: 

Carbon emissions = carbon pollution:

 … the levels of carbon pollution in our atmosphere have increased dramatically.

Extreme weather from climate change is pricey:

And we know that the costs of these events can be measured in lost lives and lost livelihoods, lost homes, lost businesses, hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency services and disaster relief. In fact, those who are already feeling the effects of climate change don’t have time to deny it  they’re busy dealing with it. 

Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction in insurance premiums, state and local taxes, and the costs of rebuilding and disaster relief. 

The need to act now:

So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all that to rest. So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren. As a president, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act. I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.  

They get to pollute for free:

Today, about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from our power plants. But here’s the thing: Right now, there are no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can pump into our air. None. Zero. We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and sulfur and arsenic in our air or our water, but power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. So today, for the sake of our children, and the health and safety of all Americans, I’m directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants, and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. 

A little sarcasm and the false choice of jobs vs. children’s health:

Now, what you’ll hear from the special interests and their allies in Congress is that this will kill jobs and crush the economy, and basically end American free enterprise as we know it.  . . . Don’t tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy.

Drilling is not the answer:

What is true is that we can’t just drill our way out of the energy and climate challenge that we face. That’s not possible. 

On Keystone:

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant. 

Zero-carbon jobs:

I know some Republicans in Washington dismiss these jobs, but those who do need to call home — because 75 percent of all wind energy in this country is generated in Republican districts.  

End fossil fuel tax breaks:

[M]y budget once again calls for Congress to end the tax breaks for big oil companies and invest in the clean-energy companies that will fuel our future. 

Energy efficiency standards:

So I know these standards don’t sound all that sexy, but think of it this way: That’s the equivalent of planting 7.6 billion trees and letting them grow for 10 years — all while doing the dishes. It is a great deal, and we need to be doing it. 

The hard truth:

The hard truth is carbon pollution has built up in our atmosphere for decades now. And even if we Americans do our part, the planet will slowly keep warming for some time to come. The seas will slowly keep rising and storms will get more severe, based on the science. It’s like tapping the brakes of a car before you come to a complete stop and then can shift into reverse. It’s going to take time for carbon emissions to stabilize. 

Preparing for transition:  

And we’ll partner with communities seeking help to prepare for droughts and floods, reduce the risk of wildfires, protect the dunes and wetlands that pull double duty as green space and as natural storm barriers. And we’ll also open our climate data and NASA climate imagery to the public, to make sure that cities and states assess risk under different climate scenarios, so that we don’t waste money building structures that don’t withstand the next storm. 

Sharing the planet:

And we have to all shoulder the responsibility for keeping the planet habitable, or we’re going to suffer the consequences — together. 

Overseas coal plants:

Today, I’m calling for an end of public financing for new coal plants overseas — unless they deploy carbon-capture technologies, or there’s no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity. And I urge other countries to join this effort. 

Setting an example:

The actions I’ve announced today should send a strong signal to the world that America intends to take bold action to reduce carbon pollution. We will continue to lead by the power of our example, because that’s what the United States of America has always done.

Just say no to well-connected donors:

And those of us in positions of responsibility, we’ll need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors, and more concerned with the judgment of posterity. Because you and your children, and your children’s children, will have to live with the consequences of our decisions. 

Just say no to flat earthers:

 I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm. And ultimately, we will be judged as a people, and as a society, and as a country on where we go from here. 

Did we do all we could?

And someday, our children, and our children’s children, will look at us in the eye and they’ll ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world? And I want to be able to say, yes, we did. Don’t you want that?

Invest. Divest. Be heard:

So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future. 

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

Crises averted:

Our progress here will be measured differently — in crises averted, in a planet preserved. But can we imagine a more worthy goal? For while we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did. 

“It makes you realize,” that astronaut said all those years ago, “just what you have back there on Earth.” And that image in the photograph, that bright blue ball rising over the moon’s surface, containing everything we hold dear — the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity — that’s what’s at stake. That’s what we’re fighting for. And if we remember that, I’m absolutely sure we’ll succeed. 

And the worst quotes: 

Equating (basically) natural gas and renewables:

Today, we use more clean energy — more renewables and natural gas — which is supporting hundreds of thousands of good jobs. 

Creating false choices, when I thought we weren’t going to do that:

We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions. . . .The bottom line is natural gas is creating jobs. It’s lowering many families’ heat and power bills.

The so-called bridge fuel, now called a transition fuel:

And it’s the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future.

Spreading the fracking disaster:

So to help more countries transitioning to cleaner sources of energy and to help them do it faster, we’re going to partner with our private sector to apply private-sector technological know-how in countries that transition to natural gas.


— elisabeth hoffman


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