President Obama has not lived up to his promises about curtailing global warming, the engine at the center of disruptive climate change. He and his administration acknowledge the problem exists, though they don't stress the scientific evidence on trends that show that temperatures and greenhouse concentrations in the atmosphere in the United States and across the world are rising at an accelerating rate.
At the same time, there were some notable but not-trend-breaking achievements during Obama's first four years like new fuel-efficiency standards for cars and small trucks, $36 billion allocated for renewable energy, the weatherization of one million homes owned by low-income homeowners, and the doubling of renewable energy from wind and solar partly supported by Department of Energy investments.
Unfortunately, there are reasons to expect that the president will not do nearly enough in the next four years of his presidency to prevent further catastrophic climate changes or to prepare the society and world to cope with it all. This is certainly not his fault alone. There are significant constraints that limit what he can do. My point: He won't do enough and, even if he wanted to, he can't do enough.
Most climate scientists, the national academies of science in all countries that have such organizations, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the National Climatic Data Center, the National Climate Assessment and other scientifically based associations, agree that the Earth's average temperature is going up and greenhouse gases continue to build up in the Earth's atmosphere. The climate is undergoing enormous changes that are most likely to increase the magnitude and frequency of severe weather events in the years to come, including more severe droughts, forest fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, powerful storms and flooding, just in this country. These events create ripples through our society, reducing food production and diminishing the availability of clean water, causing the loss of jobs and homes and the destruction of infrastructure, affecting the lives and health of millions of people, and leaving future generations in disastrous conditions.
The economic costs to our already debt-ridden society are multiplied many times over by climate change. All of these effects have been occurring in nations around the world, often with more tragic consequences than in the U.S. In the meantime, ice sheets are melting in Greenland, the Arctic and Antarctica; permafrost is melting in Siberia and other far northern places; glaciers are receding; the oceans are warming, rising and acidifying, while forests are being denuded of their trees and habitats; deserts are expanding; species are becoming extinct; and so on.
In this emergency context, why is it that we cannot expect much from the Obama administration to slow down or curtail disruptive climate change or chart a new course over the next four years? Consider some of the constraints that limit his power.
• The Republican-dominated House of Representatives will stop legislation that requires substantial revenues.
• The large and growing national debt has forced the budget debates to be linked to austerity measures. Obama has played this austerity game.
• The Nation Magazine suggests in its Feb. 11 issue that Obama can use his executive authority to "assemble a commission on climate change," "direct the EPA to regulate all greenhouse gases, and "reject the Keystone Pipeline," but such actions are mere drops in the bucket or largely symbolic.
• Obama continues to be ecumenical with respect to energy and is exuberant about the possibilities of gas and oil from shale rock formations; nuclear power plants; and wind, solar and other renewables. But his energy policy lacks focus.
• Fossil fuel corporations are the major source of greenhouse gases, but Obama is disinclined to confront big corporations. He submitted to the big pharmaceutical corporations when it came to whether to allow Medicare to negotiate the price of drugs or not. He did not push back on Wall Street financial corporations on "too big to fail." He turned a blind eye to the trillions in loan guarantees, zero-interest loans and purchase of toxic assets that financial corporations got from the Federal Reserve. The big weapons makers still benefit from costly cost-plus contracts and a virtual free hand in selling weapons abroad.
• Disruptive climate change is a challenge that requires international cooperation, and the Obama administration has refused to cooperate with other nations on a multilateral climate treaty.
• Obama, like all other politicians and probably most citizens put jobs and economic growth before climate-friendly policy, even though there is mounting evidence that we can have jobs and sound climate/environmental policy together.
• Obama has vacillated on whether to give a green light to the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline. In the meantime, oil and gas pipelines are being constructed in other parts of the country.Bob Sheak is an emeritus professor of sociology at Ohio University. He lives just outside of Athens.