"This is personal": The origins of Obama's climate obsession

The president's made climate change a top priority -- and coal and gas execs are beginning to panic

By Lindsay Abrams
Published May 5, 2014 6:15PM (EDT)
               (AP/Alex Brandon)
(AP/Alex Brandon)

The Washington Post went up Sunday with an in-depth look at Obama's seeming transformation into a climate champion. The president's so into climate change these days, Juliet Eilperin reports, he's bringing it up in meetings with world leaders and chatting about it with Sasha and Malia.

According to White House counselor John D. Podesta, it was satellite images like these, showing the West's declining snowpack between the same January date in 2013 (top) and 2014 (bottom), that finally made global warming a top priority for the president:

NASA images via LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team

It's been evident for some time now that Obama sees climate action as vital to his legacy, as Cecilia Muñoz, who directs the White House Domestic Policy Council, confirmed to the Post. “This is really real for him, in terms of what he’s leaving,” she said. “This is personal for him.” And politically, the time is right: “There was a sense then it just wasn’t the sort of thing you could tee up in [2011], with an election coming up,” former White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley told the Post. “With respect to my friends in the environment community, to put this at the front of the list, you might as well have taken a gun to your head and shot yourself.”

Eilperin doesn't go into much detail on the implications of the president's renewed and aggressive focus on climate issues, although she points out that the usual suspects are hurt and confused by what's been going on:

Coal and gas industry officials say they are increasingly alarmed by Obama’s focus on climate change, saying administration policies are unrealistic and do not recognize how hydraulic fracturing has transformed the ability to extract oil and gas from the ground.

“They want a complete transformation from the hydrocarbon molecule to the electron, and their refusal to accept reality continues to frustrate me,” said Charles T. Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers. “So my question is, why are we doing this? Is it because he promised to do it when he came into office? Is it because he’s got a large donor out there dangling a lot of money? Is it because he really believes it and is passionate about doing it? Or is it all of the above?”

But while the EPA's certainly been enacting some significant rules, particularly to combat coal and other potent sources of emissions, this all still comes down to the question of whether or not Obama's going to make the executive decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline, the largest looming literal and symbolic source of dirty energy. For better or for worse, as Ryan Lizza established in his excellent New Yorker piece last fall, environmentalists have transformed the pipeline into the prevailing symbol of the president's commitment to combating climate change -- and if he truly is working with both his legacy and the planet's future in mind, it's hard to see how he could give it the go-ahead.

Lindsay Abrams

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Barack Obama California Drought Climate Change Coal Industry Epa Keystone Xl Pipeline Oil And Gas