President Obama speaking about climate change at Georgetown University. (Photo: US Embassy)
President Obama has laid out a comprehensive and ambitious plan to reduce US carbon dioxide emissions from sources like power plants and expand the use of renewables and natural gas. Host Steve Curwood gets reactions from David Hawkins Director of Climate Programs at NRDC, Sierra Club’s executive director Michael Brune, and a student activist.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston, This is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. In his fifth year as President, Barack Obama has unveiled a comprehensive and detailed plan to address climate change. On June 25, a hot and sweaty day in Washington, the President promised leadership at home and abroad, despite partisan divisions that block congressional action. Mr. Obama’s vision ranges from controlling power plant emissions to boosting renewables and efficiency, and helping cities and states prepare for the effects of the changing climate. Joining us now is David Hawkins, the Director of Climate Programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Welcome to Living on Earth.
HAWKINS: Thank you, Steve. Good to be here
CURWOOD: Well, first off, what did you make of this speech? What this the climate champion many people have been waiting for?
HAWKINS: This was a grand slam home run of a speech. The President articulated why we need to work urgently on the problem of climate disruption, and he identified sensible things that can be done that will not only help us slow the damage from climate change, but will provide a path for economic renaissance for the United States and deliver health benefits to the people in the United States at the same time. So he made a great case. And then, the third element was the content of the action plan where he is making as his centerpiece, going after the largest remaining unregulated carbon polluter in the United States, the dirty power sector. So this was a great speech.
CURWOOD: Alright. Let’s take a listen to the bit from the speech about the regulation of power plants.
OBAMA: 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.
CURWOOD: So from your perspective, Dave Hawkins, this is a pretty big deal.
HAWKINS: It’s a huge deal. We’ve been trying at NRDC to get a President of the United States to take this step for 20 years. And Obama is the one who stepped up and committed to do it. It flows from a Supreme Court decision in 2007 that declared that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, despite President George W. Bush’s claim that it was not. And the court clarified that the EPA has full authority under the 40-year-old Clean Air Act to regulate carbon pollution from sources like automobiles, trucks, buses, power plants, refineries and other major polluters.
CURWOOD: Now many people weren’t expecting President Obama to talk about the Keystone XL pipeline proposal in his speech, but he came right out and said he wouldn’t approve the pipeline if it had significant impacts on our climate. Let’s take a listen.
OBAMA: I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done. But I do want to be clear: 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. [APPLAUSE] 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.
CURWOOD: We’re going to take a listen now, Dave Hawkins, to Michael Brune. He’s the Executive Director of the Sierra Club who got arrested in front of the White House protesting Keystone. He has a pretty strong reaction.
BRUNE: Well, this was another one of the bombshells of the President’s speech, and that he basically said he’s not going to approve the pipeline, because the pipeline won’t be in the country’s interests if it makes climate change much worse. And the reason why the Sierra Club and hundreds of thousands of people across the country have mobilized to stop this pipeline, is because it will do just that. It’s a pipeline taking oil from the dirtiest source of oil on the planet, and right at a time when we’re using less and less oil as a country, it would take our country in the wrong direction. And what the President said in his speech, is that we need to move quickly to invest in clean, zero carbon energy technologies - solar, wind, advanced batteries, green transportation, using conservation and efficiency more effectively. So, we’re more confident than ever this is a pipeline that will actually never be built.
CURWOOD: How much of a pledge to stop Keystone was his remarks? You’ve been down in front of the White House demonstrating. I believe you even got arrested and protested Keystone. Is this enough for you?
BRUNE: No. No, we will not rest in this effort until the pipeline is firmly rejected.
CURWOOD: So Michael Brune says Keystone won’t get built. What do you think Dave Hawkins?
HAWKINS: Well, the President’s Keystone remarks are another big deal. In fact, it’s even bigger than Keystone itself. What the President said is that there’s a new test of what’s in the national interest, and that is whether an activity makes global warming worse. And he has articulated what might be the Obama environmental doctrine which is it’s against the interest of the United States to pursue activities that will make global warming worse. That is a very big deal. As far as the Keystone pipeline itself is concerned, he has set up a test for that pipeline - will it make global warming worse? We think the facts are clear, it will, and it will flunk that test.
CURWOOD: Now, the President asserted his commitment to using natural gas a bridge fuel to a clean economy, but natural gas still has carbon in it. What about the problems with fracking, Dave Hawkins?
HAWKINS: Well, the good news about natural gas is that it has half the carbon pollution of coal. And the bad news about natural gas is that it has half the carbon pollution of coal. We can use some natural gas, but if we use a lot of it, in order to protect the climate, we’re going to have to capture the carbon from that natural gas we use. And we have to pay attention, much better attention, to what’s produced. We have to make sure that the wells that are drilled to produce this gas are built more solidly, are leakproof. We have to make sure that the water waste is handled better than it is. We have to make sure that drilling companies have respect for the interests and wishes of the community, in which they wish to operate.
CURWOOD: Michael Brune also had some things to say about natural gas.
BRUNE: That was the one misstep in the President’s plan. The most significant one. We think natural gas is not a bridge fuel but more a gangplank to a destabilized climate. We need to be able to move beyond fossil fuels, and we have to acknowledge that doesn’t happen overnight. But what we should understand is that as we move off of coal, as we decrease our reliance on dirty oil, we can’t over-rely on natural gas. What we need to do is we need to be leapfrogging over dirty fuels and going all in on clean energy.
CURWOOD: Now some say natural gas has been undercutting the development of renewables because it’s become so cheap. Dave Hawkins, what do you make of that? Does it make sense to be looking to natural gas without, say, a carbon tax? Something to make the carbon in natural gas more expensive over time?
HAWKINS: Well, natural gas is very much a double-edged sword. It will beat out dirty coal, but it will also beat out renewables. So yes, we need a carbon pollution standard, and done right, a carbon pollution standard can help adjust the relationship between the natural gas and the competition so that it continues to beat out coal, but no longer beats out renewables.
CURWOOD: Now the President said he’s pushing hard for more investment in solar, wind, and other renewables. He says he wants 20 percent of power that the federal government uses to come from clean sources by 2020. Dave Hawkins, is this too ambitious? Not ambitious enough?
HAWKINS: It’s a nice target. But again, it points out the difficulty we have when we don’t actually directly value the carbon pollution. Because if we did, then we wouldn’t need a mandate for the federal government to use a certain amount of renewables. There would be a market reason to do it - saving money. Now, we’re spending the money, we’re just not spending it on the power part of our checkbook. We’re spending it on the health part of our checkbook. We’re spending it on the impacts of our kids that are going to suffer as a result of climate disruption. So we do have to value the carbon pollution from the power that we consume. The sooner we do that comprehensively, the better.
CURWOOD: Now President Obama talked about the US leading the world on climate change, Dave Hawkins, and helping poorer countries develop sustainably. Let’s have a listen.
OBAMA: Today, I'm calling for an end of public financing for new coal plants overseas [APPLAUSE] 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.
CURWOOD: Dave Hawkins, what do you make of that?
HAWKINS: I think that’s a very important step. The United States has been in the past, a promoter of dirty coal plants overseas. And those dirty coal plants are going to lock us into a climate disruption future so it doesn’t make any sense to do it. Now he made an exception in his statement for coal plants that are equipped with carbon capture and storage, and if it that helps deploy that important technology, that’s a good sensible step to take. And he made an exception for the poorest countries where there isn’t another viable option. And again, it strikes me as a sensible exception. We hope it will be the exception rather than the rule, but that is something that should be judged on the merits and the facts of each case.
CURWOOD: The President gave a lot of credit to old guard Republicans who took climate change seriously, but has no patience for climate skeptics.
OBAMA: Nobody has a monopoly on what is a very hard problem, but I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. [APPLAUSE] We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. [APPLAUSE]
HAWKINS: I think what the President was saying was that people who are denying the reality of climate change are doing a disservice to people alive today and doing a disservice to people who will be born tomorrow. We do not have time to continue to argue about whether this is a problem because every day we continue that argument, we increase the size of that problem. I like to say about carbon pollution, once we’ve emitted, we are committed. Every day that we put a ton of carbon pollution into the air, we add to the damage of climate disruption that our kids are going to have to live with.
CURWOOD: The President spoke at Georgetown University to a mostly student audience, and he called on them to take on climate change, let’s listen to what he said.
OBAMA: [APPLAUSE] Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. [APPLAUSE] 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. [APPLAUSE]
CURWOOD: David Hawkins, what do you think of this, the shout-out on divestment?
HAWKINS: Ah yes, I was at the speech as well. I was surrounded by enthusiastic students. It was a great event. And I think it was quite interesting and quite intentional that the President mentioned divestment. As we know, Bill McKibben has been leading an effort to get universities and colleges especially to divest their investments in fossil fuels. And I think that the President gave an appropriate acknowledgement and shout out and positive acknowledgement for that effort.
CURWOOD: What about putting the weight on fixing this problem with kids? Isn’t it our generation’s problem?
HAWKINS: Well, we’re the responsible adults supposedly, but we elect people to office. And today’s college students vote for those same people. Today’s college students can be a very important source of political pressure on the know-nothings and deniers who are still far too prevalent in our Congress. They have the potential to actually do something to force the adults to start behaving like adults.
CURWOOD: Now we spoke with some college students about the speech, let’s take a listen.
GRADY-BENSON: My name is Jess Grady-Benson and I’m a rising senior at Pitzer College working for the fossil fuel divestment campaign. I think there’s a very prevalent tendency to put the emphasis of the climate movement on young people right now - there are so many incredible youth activists out there all around the world doing amazing work right now. That being said, I think that’s a little bit of a cop out to neglect the responsibility of the generations - the generations that have come before us - and put our globe in the position that it’s in right now and the climate in a very dangerous tipping point.
CURWOOD: Before you go, Jess, tell me, what kind of overall grade would you give President Obama for his speech?
GRADY-BENSON: I have to say I’m a pretty tough grader. I think that he made a lot of very important points, but I have to say, for our national climate movement, for the global climate movement, there’s so much more to be done. So I would have to give him about a C or C-.
CURWOOD: David Hawkins, all in all, what grade would you give the President on his speech?
HAWKINS: The grade for this speech, I would say is an A. Whether the final grade for the course turns out to be an A or an A+ or a B or lower will depend on what is done to follow up in the next three and a half years before he leaves office. He’s got a lot of work to do to carry out the steps that he’s outlined in his speech. We applaud him for the speech. We’ll applaud him even harder when he gets the work done.
CURWOOD: David Hawkins is Director of Climate Programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Thanks so much, David.
HAWKINS: You're very welcome Steve. Glad to be with you.
CURWOOD: You can hear the President’s full speech and read his plan on our website, LOE.org.
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