Barack Obama Does ‘the Environment’

When announcing that China and the U.S. will reduce carbon emissions U.S. President Barack Obama was vague enough to make the U.S. commitment sound superficially plausible. To his credit, he set the target year for the U.S. back to 2005, before his legacy of environmental carnage began. And counted in ‘clean energy’ to reduce emissions is nuclear power for which there exists no solution to store waste that is toxic for tens of thousands of years. Western companies have spent the last decade building nuclear reactors across China with another $24 billion in contracts being negotiated as Mr. Obama met with Chinese leaders. And left unsaid is that a substantial portion of the reduction in U.S. emissions has come through ‘outsourcing’ dirty economic production to China.

Back in the U.S., at about the same time (2012) that Mr. Obama was approving the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline the federal government, at the direction of the White House, was opening up two billion tons of coal in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming for extraction, largely for export to China. In stealth fashion Mr. Obama worked through the White House Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) to undermine the requirement that an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) be prepared outlining the global environmental consequences of selling publicly owned coal to China, India and Japan. And rather than issuing instructions that a study not be performed, the White House simply failed to order one while moving the rest of the project forward.


Picture (1) above: President Obama announcing his approval of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline in Cushing, Oklahoma in 2012. While the southern leg from Cushing to the Texas Gulf Coast has economic value on its own, the broader project is intended to deliver Alberta tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast. With no apparent irony or shame Congressional Democrats are voting to approve the northern leg of the pipeline as this is being written. While the vote in non-binding, it suggests that Mr. Obama’s agreement with China is most likely intended to deflect attention from his ultimate approval of the northern leg of Keystone XL. Source: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.

Assuming for the moment that the Chinese leadership is sincere in its stated intention to one day cut carbon emissions, the remaining certainty is that Mr. Obama, and U.S. political ‘leadership’ more broadly, isn’t. The secretive ‘trade’ deals TTP (Trans Pacific Partnership) and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) that Mr. Obama is pushing establish supranational governance that limits the ability of civil authorities to create and enforce environmental regulations. Regardless of whether or not TPP ultimately passes (see Yves Smith on the issue here), these agreements signal intent. The TTIP gives ‘investors’ in the U.S. and Europe rights that trump civil governance. And the U.S. has already materially outsourced the legislative process to corporate lobbyists and ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).

The ‘better than nothing’ view expressed by faux skeptics in the mainstream press fails to relate the agreement to what is needed to prevent catastrophic global warming and also to broader environmental destruction from capitalist economic production. Living oceans and forests and arable land and drinkable water go beyond narrow technocratic definitions of environmental resolution. Additionally, political economy that finds dirty Western economic production ‘outsourced’ to China and other areas with weak environmental regulations is a shell game, not an honest effort at environmental resolution. When Mr. Obama announced his plan to limit coal fired power plant emissions in the U.S. he neglected to mention stealth White House efforts to extract and sell the now ‘excess’ U.S. coal to China, India and Japan.


Graph (1) above: the decline in U.S. carbon emissions began at about the same time that the U.S. trade deficit with China began to grow. The U.S. reduction was accomplished in part by outsourcing dirty U.S. production to China. This makes ‘national’ limits on greenhouse gas emissions an improbable frame for environmental resolution. The fundamental tension of ‘profit’ seeking capitalists locating economic production in areas with low wages and few environmental regulations makes capitalism the problem and ending capitalism essential to environmental resolution. Units are millions of U.S. dollars (left scale) and millions of metric tons of CO2 equivalents (right scale). Sources: U.S. Census Dept., EPA.

By the year 2025, the endpoint to reduce U.S. carbon emissions per Mr. Obama’s agreement, he will have been out of office for eight years. By 2030, the year that Chinese carbon emissions are ‘agreed’ to peak, President Xi Jinping will be a decade or more out of office. While Chinese state governance works with five and ten year ‘plans’ to provide policy consistency, U.S. representative democracy ‘works’ by sequentially overturning state policies that conflict with business interests. Democrat Jimmy Carter began undoing the vestiges of the New Deal through deregulation of the airlines and railroads. Republican Ronald Reagan aggressively took apart the environmental institutions and regulations created by the (Republican) Nixon administration. The American political system is spectacularly ill-suited for lengthy commitments to the public interest.

And the Chinese leadership reportedly finds itself in a bind between economic and environmental goals. Breakneck economic development premised on integrated state-capitalism has both evolved from and continued to spread the political imperative of growth. But the associated environmental destruction is making life untenable for the newly prosperous populations living in highly polluted areas. Any concerted political effort to reduce carbon emissions will depend on the balance between satisfying economic growth demands and maintaining the livability of polluted areas. If the perception is that economic growth is necessary to maintain political viability, bets are that political viability wins. And given that China is one of the intended customers for President Obama’s ‘excess’ coal, how seriously will the Chinese leadership take an environmental agreement premised on limits within national boundaries?


Graph (2) above: corporate campaign contributions help create a political system where corporations and rich capitalists write legislation in their own interests. This state of affairs comports with Marxian theory, with history and with formal analysis like that of Thomas Ferguson. The call to ‘get money out of politics’ misses that capitalism undermines democracy by concentrating political power by concentrating wealth— the problem is capitalism. And Wall Street is the major source of funding for extractive and polluting industries. Source: Mother Jones.

Were Mr. Obama’s agreement with China more than cynical posturing evidence might be found in his earlier actions. The Powder River Basin coal deal (above) has the Obama administration leasing public lands to private coal mining companies at below ‘market’ prices while actively undermining the EPA’s mechanism of social accountability, the Environmental Impact Statement. Opening up new federal lands for coal mining increases the supply of available coal. And restricting use by domestic power plants reduces demand. Both of these work to reduce the market price of coal. This provides direct incentive for profit seeking corporations to replace cleaner energy with coal. And it encourages the use of more coal where doing so increases profits.

To be clear, the problem is not Mr. Obama per se— his environmental policies have been virtually identical to those of the (George W) Bush administration that preceded him. The problem is political economy premised on economic taking— capitalism. Corporate profits ‘earned’ from environmental destruction take from ‘the world’ on which all living things depend. Without the large and intrusive institutional structure needed to force capitalists to bear the costs of their production they can, and do, increase profits by forcing the rest of us to bear the costs of their production. And a Chinese government that perceives its political viability tied to environmentally destructive economic production makes evident the economic basis of politics.

urieobama4 Picture (2) above: while environmentalists were fretting over the Keystone XL pipeline the Obama administration opened up additional federal lands to be mined for coal in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. The original plan was to build export facilities across the coastal Pacific Northwest. So far public opposition and an organized environmental movement have prevented the building of the export facilities needed for ‘efficient’ export of coal to Asia through the Pacific Northwest. But the U.S. now exports near record quantities of coal. And what easier way is there to keep coal from being burned than to keep it in the ground on federal lands? Source:

It would be hugely satisfying to have a positive take on Mr. Obama’s agreement with China. The optimistic argument is that it breaks the logjam to facilitate international agreements that are more far reaching. But on its face, even were the U.S. and China to do what was agreed upon it is too little, too late. The Chinese claim that nuclear power is ‘clean’ energy, one reportedly shared by Mr. Obama, carries with it no solution for storing nuclear waste that will be toxic for many multiples of human history. The focus of carbon emissions leaves unaddressed oceanic dead zones; overfishing that has radically reconfigured oceanic eco-systems, the rapid extinction of wildlife in just a few decades and the social dislocations predicted to result from environmental destruction that has already occurred.

The political leadership in both the U.S. and China are heavily invested in maintaining the status quo. The radical departure from existing economic practice needed to prevent environmental catastrophe means ending this status quo. The political will to do so will come from below, from those whose lots aren’t tied to it. Environmental activists have so far been successful in preventing the building of export facilities for U.S. coal in the Pacific Northwest. These types of actions are the more likely path to environmental resolution if there is to be any.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is forthcoming.





Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.