On May 1, 2003, just six weeks after his invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush arrived on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in a fighter jet. Decked out in a flight suit, he declared, “in the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
That scene — Bush grinning, thumbs-up, flanked by the now infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner — became a symbol of a disastrously out-of-touch president who arrogantly declared victory just weeks after he blundered into what would be a decade-long war.
The tragic irony of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment on Iraq is what comes to mind as President Obama prepares for his trip to Alaska. There, he will discuss his administration’s climate legacy against a backdrop of melting glaciers, in the very place where he just gave Shell approval to drill into the vast carbon bomb of oil that lies beneath the Arctic ocean floor.
Scientists have been clear: Drilling for Arctic oil is a bright line that cannot be crossed. And not because it would be impossible to clean up the oil spill that is 75% likely, or Shell’s string of Arctic drilling accidents in 2012, or however you feel about polar bears. (Though for the record, those were sufficient reasons for Hillary Clinton to oppose Arctic drilling.)
It is because the 100 billion barrels of oil sitting in the Arctic is unburnable carbon. That is, there is five times as much fossil fuel on Earth as we can burn if we want to stay below the internationally agreed-upon, hell-break-loose threshold of 2° Celsius of warming. The amount of carbon we can emit is our carbon budget, and burning any Arctic oil — for market reasons as well as 100 billion barrel reasons — will blow through that budget. It must be left in the ground and scientists are unequivocal on this point:
“development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2° C.”
The scientific consensus on unburnable carbon demonstrates the problem with President Obama’s climate leadership in a nutshell. The carbon budget is a simple concept, and presumably he understands it. Yet in approving Shell to drill in the Arctic, he is continuing a string of decisions allowing the massive extraction of fossil fuels, keeping us on a path of 4 or 5 degrees of warming — a climate catastrophe.
This is the self-defeating hypocrisy at the heart of President Obama’s energy policy — what he calls his “All-of-the-Above” strategy. He increased fuel efficiency standards for cars, but also approved the southern portion of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. He made sizeable investments in clean energy and energy efficiency, but approved fracking on federal lands. He reached a historic climate deal with China, but his trade representative pressured Europe to lift its restriction on higher-carbon tar sands crude.
He implemented the Clean Power Plan to limit carbon pollution from aging coal-burning power plants, while handing over to coal companies 2.2 billion tons of publicly-owned coal, with plans to make another 10 billion tons available, (which would emit three times the emissions his Power Plan would save through 2030.) He secretly approved the massive Alberta Clipper tar sands pipeline expansion without environmental review. He is proposing opening the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling. Under President Obama, the United States is the top oil and gas producer in the world.
And now, against universal protest from environmentalists, President Obama has added Arctic drilling to his legacy. He did so just days before a historic trip to Alaska, where we can expect the president, if he sticks to his usual lines, to tell us about his unprecedented actions to reduce carbon pollution and slow climate change.
President George W. Bush’s premature declaration of victory in Iraq didn’t end his unnecessary, decade-long war of choice there. We shouldn’t expect a different result when President Obama proclaims the urgency of climate change while lighting the fuse on the Arctic carbon bomb. Just as “Mission Accomplished” was a wake up call about a president in deep denial, so too is President Obama’s Alaska trip.
Real leadership means making the hard choices and telling the hard truths. Today our survival depends on a major economic shift. We have to move rapidly toward low-carbon sources of energy, and away from burning dirty fossil fuels. If we don’t do both, it’s effectively the same as doing nothing.
Climate leadership means not only saying yes to renewable energy, it means saying no to fossil fuel giants. It means President Obama needs to change his policy from “All-of-the-Above” to “Keep it in the Ground.”
In 2008, I was working in campaign headquarters at Obama for America in Chicago. I still find myself stirred by the president’s words. But I know now that words are not enough.
About the same time that we won a mandate for President Obama to bring the change we need, President Bush, in the twilight of his presidency, expressed regret for having staged that infamous political stunt aboard an aircraft carrier.
I hope it doesn’t take President Obama that long to realize record fossil fuel extraction undermines the climate leadership we need. I hope he announces a major policy shift in Alaska. But I fear he’ll just be another president on a battleship, bragging about his six week war, with no one buying it. He might as well put on a drilling suit and stand on top of an oil rig, because that’s whose mission unfortunately he is accomplishing.