Will eco-disasters destroy Obama’s legacy?

There's a clear link between the BP spill and the global warming bill. Obama needs to explain it to Americans

Topics: Gulf Oil Spill, Barack Obama, Global Warming,

Will eco-disasters destroy Obama's legacy?The Development Driller III, which is drilling the relief well, is seen at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, May 11, 2010. REUTERS/Gerald Herbert/Pool (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT ENERGY)(Credit: © Pool New / Reuters)

The truth is that there’s not much more that President Obama can do to stop the eco-disaster now hitting the Gulf of Mexico. But his response to our fossil fuel-driven crises — so far — can still be deemed grossly inadequate.

That’s because the Gulf spill is actually one of two environmental catastrophes now unfolding, and Obama doesn’t seem to understand how they are related.

The milder but more imminent of the two is the BP disaster. It’s now clear that the Gulf Coast will be ravaged, that the impact will be felt for at least a generation, and that we will probably be testing seafood from the area for decades. If the Loop Current entrains a significant amount of the oil and dispersants to the Florida Keys, America’s great coral reef might suffer irreparable damage.

Most of the blame rests with BP — and with Big Oil’s powerful supporters in Congress, who have created the voluntary, “trust us” self-regulation we now have. Some of the blame also resides with the Minerals Management Service, which became absurdly cozy with the industry under the Cheney-Bush administration.

Because BP and Big Oil deluded themselves (and everyone else) into believing that such a disaster was unthinkable, nobody was prepared for it. The Rube Goldberg contraptions that BP is slapping together now is proof of this. If a single major oil company had thought that any of BP’s jury-rigged solutions made sense, they would have pre-built and prepositioned them a long time ago.

With its reckless cost- and corner-cutting and efforts to hide the magnitude of the gusher, BP has proven itself completely untrustworthy. As millions of gallons of oil and hundreds of thousand of gallons of dispersants cause their inevitable damage to sensitive coastal wetlands, fish, fowl and wildlife, frustration will boil over, a process that has already begun.

The right is out for Obama’s head because that’s what they do. The media is out for Obama’s head because that’s what they do. And, of course, the left is out for Obama’s head because that’s what they do. Many environmentalists are angry over Obama’s too-clever-by-half embrace of drilling earlier this year and eager to say I told you so.

Unfortunately for Obama, Congress established the principle that the oil companies are responsible for dealing with major spills after the Exxon Valdez disaster two decades ago. The oil companies pay for the cleanup and the federal agencies oversee the process.

But even more unfortunate for Obama is that in spite of BP’s incompetence, nobody really knows how to stop the mile-deep undersea volcano (other than drilling a relief well, which takes many weeks). And nobody knows how to clean it up. Independent experts calculate that BP may be spewing the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez disaster every few days. As Robert Brulle, a professor of Public Health at Drexel University and 20-year Coast Guard veteran, has noted, “With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.”

Buried at the end of a piece on how Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and others are criticizing the administration for various failings, the Washington Post has this quote from Byron W. King, an energy analyst: “But really, Uncle Sam has almost no institutional ability to control the oil spill. For that, you need people with technical authority, technical skill and firms with industrial capabilities.”

As of Monday, the Coast Guard, which is overseeing BP’s cleanup efforts, has no plans to take over. Adm.Thad Allen said, “To push BP out of the way would raise the question: to replace them with what? They’re exhausting every technical means possible to deal with that leak.”

On Monday, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., issued a seemingly compelling call that others have made: “The military ought to take charge. The military can organize it and be the head of the rescue operation. Otherwise we have a situation that’s going out of control.” But the Navy is already providing technical assistance in plugging the leak and the Coast Guard is coordinating and overseeing the cleanup effort by BP. Even Nelson couldn’t explain how the military was better positioned to deal with the disaster.

If I were Obama, I’d put Jindal in charge of the Louisiana response. In the unlikely event Jindal can accomplish much, everybody wins. In the likely event he can’t, well …

Obama’s problem is that the situation is virtually uncontrollable. And this is characteristic of big environmental disasters — particularly so with the biggest catastrophe that is now unfolding: human-caused global warming. Indeed, the impact of unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases — from sea level rise to desertification to ocean acidification — will likely be irreversible for centuries.

And that’s why Obama’s legacy — and indeed the legacy of all 21st century presidents, starting with George W. Bush — will be determined primarily by whether we avert catastrophic climate change. If not, then Obama — and all of us — will be seen as a failure, and rightfully so.

There would be no other way to judge all of us if we (and the rest of the world) stay on our current greenhouse gas emissions path, which risks warming most of the inland United States by nine degrees or more by century’s end and which could lead to sea levels 3 to 6 feet higher (rising perhaps an inch or two a year), cause the Southwest — from Kansas to California — to become a permanent dust bowl, and transform much of the ocean into a hot, acidic dead zone. All of this would make the BP oil disaster fade into distant memory.

By the end of the third decade of this century, all of American life — politics, international relations, our homes, our jobs, our industries, the kind of cars we drive — will be forever transformed by the climate and energy challenge.

Obama is the first president in history to articulate in stark terms both the why and how of the sustainable clean energy vision. Last April, he said, “The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.” In October, he said at MIT, “There are those who will suggest that moving toward clean energy will destroy our economy — when it’s the system we currently have that endangers our prosperity and prevents us from creating millions of new jobs.”

But while Obama is a great speechmaker, he is not yet a great communicator — like, say, Ronald Reagan or Winston Churchill. He lacks Reagan’s overarching, consistent ideology and he lacks Churchill’s laser focus on the imminent threat and the consequences of inaction.

Obama needs to take charge of the spill response, yes. But more important, he needs to communicate to Americans that the disaster was ultimately caused by our addiction to fossil fuel — and to make it clear that we face a far greater disaster if we don’t start working toward ending that addiction. In short, it’s time to move away from the dirty, unsafe fuels of the 19th century and to embrace the clean safe fuels of the 21st century that never run out.

He needs to devote himself to passing comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation this year, the best chance he’ll have during his presidency to do so — and thus to preserve the health and well-being of future generations of Americans (not to mention his legacy). And this means more than just saying all the right things. What Obama must do is lead the Senate to a solution that many are too fearful to devise themselves.

There may not be much more Obama can do about the eco-disaster in the Gulf. But he absolutely can — and must — do much more to stop the eco-disaster hitting our climate.

Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he oversees ClimateProgress.org. He is the author of "Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and the Politics." Romm served as acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>