Deconstructing Obama's Climate Message from a Green (and Socialist) Perspective

For democratic socialists who care about the environment – and for countless American environmentalists who probably don’t care about democratic socialism – President Obama’s approach to climate change in his 2013 State of the Union Address offers a remarkable collection of contradictions.

In a few well-chosen words, Obama on Feb. 12 cited “the overwhelming judgment of science” in declaring that the U.S. “must do more to combat climate change,” for the sake of both ourselves and our posterity, and “before it’s too late.”  Yet at the same time, he called for climate policy to advance “strong economic growth” that some environmentalists, at least, believe is a driver of both climate change and general environmental destruction. 

The speech hailed striking advances in wind energy and solar energy production under Obama’s watch, and called for more such advances in the future.  Yet it likewise celebrated U.S. growth in the production of oil and gas, fossil fuels that obviously contribute to destructive climate change.  Indeed, the President promised that his Administration will “keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits,” which could accelerate the extraction and use of both of these fossil fuels.

In calling for new federally subsidized research on new technologies in order to “shift our cars and trucks off oil for good,” Obama proposed to fund such research through a new Energy Security Trust funded from royalties on oil and gas production on public lands – a plan similar to one floated in the 1980s by then-Senator Bennett Johnson (D-LA), and overwhelmingly opposed by environmental groups at the time, who saw it as potentially hooking the renewable energy movement on addictive infusions of money generated by the oil industry.

Also in the State of the Union address, Obama made a probably obligatory reference to the desirability of Congress enacting a “bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change” such as that championed a few years ago by Joe Lieberman and John McCain.

And yet – maybe very significantly –  he said nothing at all in this speech about coal, whether of the “clean coal” variety or otherwise, and national environmental groups strongly hope that his EPA will adopt and implement new rules on CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants that will reduce national consumption of this especially dirty, especially carbon-intensive fossil fuel.

The speech did not mention by name the proposed Keystone XL pipeline – an item of bitter contention between Obama’s environmentalist supporters and some of the labor unions backing him.  The President’s address also said nothing about nuclear power, which the Heritage Foundation is touting as a promising alternative to fossil fuel production and which NASA climate scientist James Hansen has somewhat gingerly endorsed as one of many possible alternatives to continued dependence on coal, oil and natural gas.

And although some observers strongly expect Obama’s new Secretary of State, former Senator John Kerry, to pursue climate-friendly policies internationally, the State of the Union speech made no mention of global climate policy negotiations that China, the U.S., and India – the leading CO2 emitters of the world – have effectively stalemated by failing to agree on which nations need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, by how much, and by when.

Finally, Obama, except in his brief allusion to the “overwhelming judgment of science,” said nothing about recent climate research that warns of the likely inability of the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid a 2 degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures by about 2040.  Such a 2 degree rise is what many scientists consider a “tipping point” — beyond which melting Arctic sea ice and methane releases from melting permafrost in the Arctic may put greenhouse warming on steroids, sharply accelerating it and perhaps putting its control or its cessation beyond the powers of human civilization.

It is something of a Marxist cliché that history develops through contradictions.  But both in his statements and in his silences, Obama in his State of the Union remarks placed before the voters some crucially important contradictions, and highlighted them in bold relief.

Can the mainstream American environmental movement and more radical Green groups grasp only one pole of those contradictions, and by pushing on them hard enough, achieve real progress in tackling the climate challenge?  Arguably, this is the best or perhaps the only thing the environmental groups can do legislatively for now.

Yet at the same time, Obama’s speech also seems to offer the fossil fuel industry – with the possibly significant exception of the coal producers – a chance to grasp the other pole of these contradictions, and to push our civilization in precisely the opposite direction, towards environmental disaster.

What this paradox in Obama’s climate rhetoric signifies, of course, is that American society and the broad Democratic Party coalition that got Obama reelected are both riven by our own, very powerful contradictions.  Obama’s dazzlingly paradoxical formulation of energy policy reflects some stunning and possibly fatal contradictions among his supporters and those political and economic interests – including capitalist business interests – that Obama probably needs to work with to accomplish anything.

Are there any smart Marxists in DSA – or any perceptive, socially-minded analysts in the various Green groups – who can unravel the contradictions both in Obama’s energy rhetoric and the Democratic coalition at large, so that progressives can decide the best way to move forward on the climate issue?  If so, let’s hope they show the way forward – and as Obama said it himself,“ before it’s too late.”

Andy Feeney is on the steering committee of Metro Washington, D.C. DSA.


CALL TO ACTION: Stop the Climate Crisis

Tens of thousands of people will converge in Washington, D.C. this weekend to demand that President Obama to move forward on climate change. Not every DSAer who cares about solving climate change and stopping Keystone XL can make it. The movement is much bigger than those who can be on the National Mall.

Here are three ways to be a part of the action even if you can’t make it to DC:

1) Join the Social Media Thunderclap is using a new online tool to amplify our voices on Twitter and Facebook. It is called Thunderclap—because together, that’s how loud we can be.

When you sign up, Thunderclap will schedule a message to go out from you with a link to the Livestream during the rally—if 10,000 people join as well. Together we can reach millions of people with a message during the rally.

2) Submit Your Photos

There will be a giant screen at the rally, showing photos and messages of support from across the country — to get your message on the screen, take a photo showing your support for the action, or of a part of your community that you want protected from climate change, then email it to [email protected], with your location in the subject line. (Or, you can post your photo to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #ForwardOnClimate.)

3) Share Your Sign has made available a sharable sign-maker that you can use to make a custom sign declaring your support for the action, and share on social networks. 

Every era wrestles with injustice, government inaction, and some degree of existential threat— but the scale and urgency of the climate crisis is truly unparalleled. On the other hand, we live in a world where we have communications tools that can bring us together in new ways.

Together with, we know that mass action—marching in the streets, writing letters to elected officials en masse, and gathering in our communities—is absolutely essential. But action in the streets can be amplified when combined with the power of new communication tools and a distributed network of activists. 

DSA has adopted the following statement on the basic right that everyone has to a healthy environment, as part of its Social and Economic Bill of Rights:

“What use is a fine house if you don’t have a tolerable planet to put it on?” 

—Henry David Thoreau

Environmental health is inherently collective. Owners of polluting factories may locate themselves upstream and the impact of pollution may vary, but what goes around comes around: toxic substances circulate though air, water and food. When species and ecosystems are driven to extinction, their loss affects and is felt by every person. The oil spilled by BP in the Gulf did not stop at the wellhead.

Everyone deserves the right to air, water, topsoil, food and a workplace and community free of pollution that degrades health and well-being. All should have access to parks, natural areas and information about the known hazards and uncertain risks to which we are exposed. Further, we demand the right to participate in decisions on resource use and living conditions, so that the natural world and its fantastic diversity of living creatures, habitats and interactions will be sustained and survive for posterity.

The grossly unequal distribution of wealth and power exposes communities with the least power to the greatest environmental abuse. Thus the struggle for environmental justice in the United States began with low-income communities of color.

Only when there are no more powerless communities to serve as environmental dumps, can we eliminate pollution sources that belong in nobody’s backyard: Not on Planet Earth. A basic environmental justice demand and an effective deterrent is the requirement that polluters pay full cleanup costs, including the mitigation of later health problems in exposed communities.

The great systems that sustain life on Earth— the atmosphere, oceans, lakes, rivers and groundwater, soils and natural ecosystems—must be recognized as commons belonging to everyone and managed democratically. Left to the logic of the private market, they will be exploited to extinction. Our posterity will inherit a healthy planet only if we end the profit-driven throwaway corporate economy and replace it with a production system designed for systematic reuse and recycling of materials.

The global climate system is in grave peril from the unrestricted use of fossil fuels that powered the industrial revolution. We are moving toward conditions incompatible with those that made human civilization possible. A transition to renewable energy and innovation in energy productivity can continue to raise living standards, but quality of life can improve even more with cultural change, in Bill McKibben’s phrase, toward fewer belongings and more belonging.

Healthy communities require managing metropolitan land use in the public interest, developing public transit and halting suburban sprawl. A political realignment that links older, working class suburbs with inner cities can be the basis of an environmental and social justice politics.

We face a choice: to extend the right to an environmentally sustainable life to everyone, or face escalating ecological catastrophes and resource wars. This challenge is as radical as the industrial and agricultural revolutions. But nobody will have a tolerable planet unless the right to a healthy environment is extended to all.