Obama's carbon-cutting plan might go up in smoke: Don Pittis

The Obama administration announced today that the U.S. government plans to cut back on greenhouse gases by 30 per cent by 2030. Encouraging as it may sound, we can't be certain it will work, writes Don Pittis.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announces major initiative to cut emissions from coal plants

U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to announce a plan to drastically cut carbon emissions in the U.S. (Francois Lenior/Reuters)

So much for reading science fiction as escapism. Last week, as reports emerged that U.S. President Barack Obama was going to deliver an announcement about climate change, the following quote popped out at me from my current subway novel:

"Late capitalism writhed in its internal decision concerning whether to destroy Earth's biosphere or change its rules. Many argued for the destruction of the biosphere, as being the lesser of two evils."

That's from the book 2312 by American sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson. I'm only halfway through, so I don't know if the biosphere survives in the end. But it appears to be another example of life imitating art.

On Monday, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy announced that the U.S. government is seeking to cut carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, and that U.S. states have until 2017 to comply with the new rules.

Encouraging as it may sound, we can't be certain it will work.

Some legislators see Obama as waging a 'war' on the coal industry. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

Even if the strategy as laid out today could actually turn the tide, there are enormous forces balanced against the Obama plan. Given the lack of support in the Republican-dominated Congress, the president is using his executive powers to push through the new rules, just as he did with changes to the national minimum wage.

The plan fingers coal power plants as the biggest producer of climate-changing carbon gases. The plan is expected to permit individual states to institute a program of cap and trade, though not a national carbon tax, a scheme many economists think would be most effective.

Mind you, some are convinced climate change has already crossed some sort of tipping point, so that as with recent reports about the West Antarctic ice sheet, nothing can be done to stop the slide.

Obama's signature policy

The Obama climate plan, which some see as part of his "war on coal," is being touted as the signature policy of his presidency. But as the New Republic points out, the president is actually late to the party.

Back when he was a senator for his home state of Illinois, Obama was a big supporter of coal. “The people I meet in town-hall meetings back home would rather fill their cars with fuel made from coal reserves in southern Illinois than with fuel made from crude reserves in Saudi Arabia,” the New Republic quotes Obama as saying in 2007.

That is not a slight against Obama for changing his mind, because many people will have to change their minds if we are going to change the rules. But it is a reminder that in the politics of climate change, ordinary folks may prefer to vote on the basis of jobs and cheap energy than dreamy thoughts about the biosphere.

One of the changes being mooted is something to encourage power companies to develop climate-friendly energy sources and force them to shut down the oldest, dirtiest plants.

As the Bloomberg business news wire reported last week, even in chilly Alberta, renewable power such as solar is predicted to soon be cheaper than coal. If that is true, think how much more power could be produced even more cheaply in the sunny U.S. south — never mind in places such as India, which are so desperately in need of reliable power sources.

(Having once been forced to walk barefoot over the burning sands in a south Indian temple courtyard, I know from personal experience how much solar energy is waiting to be tapped.)

Ottawa's perspective

However, to see the forces ranged against the Obama plan, Canadians do not have to look south. As I mentioned last month, there are rational reasons why many businesses will fight against new climate change rules. Our federal government and more than one of our provinces have shown themselves to be on the side of not wanting to change the rules.

Kim Stanley Robinson's novel won the prestigious Nebula Award for science fiction in 2013. (Orbit Books)

They would likely side with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has suggested new EPA rules would cost the economy $51 billion in lost revenue, jobs and higher energy costs. In the litigious United States, where most Republicans deny that climate change exists, it is hard to see opponents of the new rules conceding quietly.

Until now, some Canadians have taken the view that while the rest of the world may flood and cook as the climate changes, a warmer north would be to our benefit. However, as Eric Reguly reported last week, even Canadian agriculture is expected to suffer.

Perhaps that, and the shaming effect of Obama's new policy, will compel Canadians to change the rules, too.

In my subway novel so far, humans are busy hollowing out thousands of asteroids and terraforming Mars to replace the earth's shrinking productive capacity. By 2312, says Robinson's novel, Earth will be importing food from other parts of the solar system.

If Obama's plan to change the rules and save the biosphere fails, that idea might seem like an interesting option. But let's face it, that's just science fiction.

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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