In summer 1978, my grandfather George Washington Timmons, my cousin George and I took the train from the Midwest across Canada and the ferry up the Pacific coast to Alaska. That Gramps had a Teddy Roosevelt moustache and a gruff demeanor gave the adventure a Rough Riders flavor.
Certainly there is enough space in Alaska to drill for oil and protect large swaths in wildlife refuges and national parks. As leaders of the Inupiat Eskimo corporation put it in a letter to President Obama, “History has shown us that the responsible energy development, which is the lifeblood of our economy, can exist in tandem with and significantly enhance our traditional way of life.”
Unfortunately, this view is outdated. As President Obama wraps up his historic visit to Alaska and meeting with the Arctic climate resilience summit, he walked a razor’s edge, delivering a delicately crafted missive for two audiences. Each view is coherent by itself, but together they create a contradictory message that reflects the cognitive dissonance of this administration on climate change.
“Climate hawks” worry that we are already venturing into perilous territory in dumping gigatons of carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere, causing a greenhouse effect. The scientific consensus is that raising global concentrations of CO2 over 450 parts per million would send us over 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit of warming (2 degrees Celsius) and into “dangerous climate change.” The Arctic is warming twice as fast as this global average, and though we are still below 1.8 degrees F of warming, many systems may be reaching tipping points already.
The difficulty is that we have a limit to how much greenhouse gases we can pump into the atmosphere before we surpass the “carbon budget” and push the system over 3.6 degrees F. Realistic and credible plans have to be advanced to limit extraction and combustion of fossil fuels until we have legitimate means of capturing and sequestering all that surplus carbon somewhere safe.
Obama has become a global leader on climate change, seeking to inspire other countries to agree to sharply reduce emissions. This work has yielded fruit, with major joint announcements with China last November, with Mexico in March, and a series of other nations coming in with pledges.
Meanwhile, U.S. fossil fuel projects continue to be built that will lock us in to carbon emissions for decades to come. They will certainly push us over the “carbon budget” we know exists and beyond which human civilization may be untenable on this planet. But these projects are advanced by extremely strong economic actors with mighty lobbying and public relations machines, and flatly opposing them is likely to lead to one’s portrayal as a Luddite seeking to send humanity back to the stone age. Clean energy alternatives exist, and they are increasingly affordable and reliable. Logically, we need to be spending the remaining carbon budget to make the transition to a net zero emissions economy, not to continuing the wasteful one we have now.
The original Rough Rider, Teddy Roosevelt, went from avid hunter to devoted conservationist as he learned of the damage over-cutting was causing American forests. As Obama said in Alaska: “Let’s be honest; there’s always been an argument against taking action. ... We don’t want our lifestyles disrupted. The irony, of course, is that few things will disrupt our lives as profoundly as climate change.”
That is the political razor’s edge the president — and all of us — have to walk today, as we make the inevitable transition away from fossil fuel development.
This was originally published by the Providence Journal.