Bi-Polar Disorder: Obama’s Bait-and-Switch Environmental Politics

We live in strange Orwellian, Islamophobic, and eco-cidal times. A comrade from the great burning Northwest tells me the following story:

“I had a Sunday dinner a few weeks ago at the house of my dad’s and stepmom’s neighbors. The man and woman of the house are in their 60’s and both proud liberals. The man said he was a ‘Berkley liberal.’ He supports Hillary, she supports Bernie Sanders. Towards the end of the dinner he expressed the opinion that a few nuke bombs on some of the major cities in Iraq would be a good idea. Previous to that, he defended the dropping of nuke bombs on Japan. The guy’s wife, the Bernie supporter, added something about the barbarous tribal nature of Iraqi society. She quoted Deepak Chopra on the [evil] nature of Mohamed. Their son is a fighter pilot who is thinking about joining the top gun program. He is gay but is too scared to come out to his work colleagues.”

“Sometimes,” my correspondent writes, “it’s easy to feel like Winston Smith in this world.” Indeed.

The climate change-driven fires of Washington continued their record-setting ravages not so far from the dinner party while the gathering’s Sixties Age “Berkeley liberal” host called for the nuclear incineration of Baghdad and Fallujah and his Bernie-fan spouse explained that Iraq’s dire straits reflect its primitive and savage nature – not the criminal racist and petro-imperialist destruction of that nation by the America Empire over more than three decades. The destruction has always been driven by Washington’s longstanding compulsion to secure and sustain global dominance by controlling the supply of global oil – the very substance whose over-extraction and burning has most particularly driven the world to the edge of full environmental catastrophe.

No doubt the liberal and progressive couple is more than okay with Sanders’ recent announcement on ABC News last Sunday that if elected president he will not discontinue Barack Obama’s controversial and mass-murderous drone program in the Middle East. Since Obama took office in January of 2009, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports, at least 2,464 people and 314 innocent civilians have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia. Nine times more strikes have occurred under Obama than under George W. Bush. Obama’s strikes have killed nearly six times more people and twice as many civilians as Bush’s. At least seven American citizens have been extra-judicially killed by Obama’s drones, including one 16-year-old. Obama directly ordered many if not most of the strikes. A study by the human rights group Reprieve found that as of Nov. 24, 2014, US attempts to liquidate 41 alleged terrorists with drones killed 1,147 civilians, including more than 200 children. The U.S. under Obama has carried out drone attacks on weddings (“for better or worse”) and funerals, along with “double-tap” strikes on rescue workers. A proud record under the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize! If anything, the nice liberal couple (the husband, quite explicitly) mentioned above would like to see a much higher civilian Muslim body count.

But let’s forget about Bernie, Hillary, and their “liberal” (“Berkeley” and otherwise) supporters for now and keep the focus on the actually in-power fake-progressive Big Brother-in-chief right now. I am referring, of course, to Barack Obama, who’s Kill List seems to include planet Earth – well, livable ecology – beneath recent demonstrations of love for our shared Mother. If my left eco-socialist politics and world view were combined with evangelical Christianity of the sin and damnation sort (I remain, alas, a quiet atheist), I would predict that Barack Obama will have a very long life since it would take Satan’s engineers many decades to construct a dungeon in Hell hot enough for the current U.S. president. Among the many things that stations Obama beneath the lowest snails on Earth is his special, arch-cynical penchant for potently pretending to be something he isn’t: a progressive. He is the ultimate fake-progressive poseur – an unmatched epitome of the nauseating triumph of symbol over substance and of words over deeds.

Take his great show of concern last summer for the appalling national crime and embarrassment that is the United States’ shockingly high rate of racially disparate mass imprisonment and criminal branding (“the New Jim Crow”). Two years and seven months into his second presidential term, Obama walked with great fanfare into a federal lock-up and stood in mock horror before one of its grim solitary confinement cells. He went to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP) to proclaim his purported recent discovery that “mass incarceration makes our country worse and [that] we need to do something about it.” Beneath the praise and fanfare his performance evoked, what has the President actually done for the nation’s vast army of Black prisoners and marked-for-life felons? Nothing, or next to it. The president’s sudden late-term “desire to look the Great Emancipator” (Margaret Kimberly) was unaccompanied (as I showed in a recent Counterpunch essay) by any serious policy intervention to reverse the nation’s great, globally unmatched and racist lockdown.

On this issue as on so many others, the president is “a master of appearing to do what he doesn’t do” (Kimberly). (Beneath symbolism – setting foot in a prison, applauding the take-down of the Confederate Flag, public anger at the police treatment of the bourgeois professor Henry Louis Gates, a claim to look like Trayvon Martin – there’s no seriously anti-racist or social justice substance in Obama’s presidency.) :Although Obama is [now] the first serving president to actually set foot in a prison,” Glen Ford notes, there is no reason to “expect anything other than cynical theatricality and double-dealing from this president. When it comes to the criminal justice system, Obama is a consummate trickster.”

The same can be said for Obama on many other issues that rightly concern good-hearted progressives including global warming, the biggest issue of our or any time. Just as Obama is not above standing in front of a prison cell to “burnish his legacy” (the New York Times) near the end of his (thankfully) last term, he is ready to plant himself between photographers and a melting glacier to do the same on the epic problem of climate change. Let’s stop for a moment to recognize the stunning duplicity of the Narcissist-in-Chief’s recent trip to Alaska, replete with heartfelt hiking trips to see firsthand the terrible toll that carbon-driven planet-cooking is taking on Arctic frost. Obama’s faux-green junket North included a speech on climate change that “bordered on the apocalyptic” (New York Times) and argued with seeming passion that “we’re not acting fast enough” to heal the Earth. Obama appeared to be gravely concerned about global warming. But so what? As Slate’s Eric Holthaus noted three days ago in a Slate essay titled “Beneath His Climate Change Promises, Obama is Basically Running a Petrostate”:

“But his words—as powerful and compelling as they are—fall flat, given his record of expanding domestic production of fossil fuels. Lost in the debate over Arctic drilling is the fact that the administration has quietly set in motion a vast expansion of coal mining in Wyoming that could erase the cumulative impact of all his [better] climate policies—three times over….The United States, now planet Earth’s second biggest producer of fossil fuels behind only China, increasingly functions as a petrostate. Some have argued that this is a good thing—better to bring all that coal, oil, and gas out of the ground in a democracy that can apply environmental oversight. But it sends dangerous mixed messages to other countries that are considering whether to increase the ambition of their own climate policies…Since the U.S. has long held a ban on oil exports, the crude we used to buy on the global market is now up for sale elsewhere, and prices have plummeted in response—counterintuitively strengthening the American oil industry. Lawmakers in Alaska, which derives about three-quarters of its tax revenue from oil and gas, are practically begging Obama to keep the tap flowing….Obama mentioned none of this in his speech on Monday. Climate Obama is perfectly happy making grand speeches while Oil Baron Obama gleefully counts the money flowing in from industry. Behind the scenes, senior administration officials have acknowledged that they are trying to have it both ways” (emphasis added).

It’s that old, nasty distinction between words and deeds again.

Speaking of words, Holthaus could have said more. A big missing part of his indictment of “Oil Baron Obama” is the telling fact that last May the Obama administration cleared the way for the giant climate-changing multinational oil corporation Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Shell got approval to drill in the U.S. portion of the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. Shell’s leases are 70 miles out, in a remote, untouched, and pristine area that provides critical habitats for several rare species and large marine mammals. It’s a treacherous area characterized by extreme storms, likely to cause massive oil spills. Environmental groups had long warned against the madness of drilling in the area, which holds 22 billion barrels of oil and 93 trillion cubic feet of natural gas

The New York Times described Obama’s decision as “a devastating blow to environmentalists.” It might have added “and to prospects for a decent future.” According to Times environmental reporter Coral Davenport, speaking on the “P”BS Newshour last May, the Chukchi Sea announcement was “still a very striking piece of this president’s environmental legacy,” one that has “environmental groups…surprised.” But there was no reason for surprise. The decision came just four months after Obama opened up a large portion of the southern U.S. Atlantic coast to new deep-water offshore drilling, the Times notes. The national newspaper of record might have added that it came five and a half years after Obama, elected on a promise (among other things) to reduce climate change, almost singlehandedly undermined desperate international efforts to set binding limits on global carbon emissions in Copenhagen. His environmental record ever since has been calamitous, greasing the eco-cidal skids for the United States’ largely fracking-based emergence as the world’s leading oil and gas producer in the name of an “all-of-the-above” (nuclear included) energy policy and so-called national energy independence.

And the “first green president” is not done contributing to anthropogenic global warming. Obama has been steadily and stealthily pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) through Congress over and against the public’s understandable suspicion of such “free trade” (investor rights) agreements. As Friends of the Earth reminded us last spring, the TPP is “a platform for economic integration and government deregulation for nations surrounding the Pacific…The TPP is a potential danger to the planet, subverting environmental priorities, such as climate change measures and regulation of mining, land use, and bio-technology.”

There are a number of understandable and respectable responses (horror and disgust come to mind) to Obama’s mother-(Earth)-raping Arctic Ocean moves, but surprise is not one of them. Next time you see a liberal Democrat U.S. environmentalist, ask him (to amend the equally Orwellian Alaskan Sarah Palin): “so how’s that hopey-climate-changey thing working out for ya?”

In the meantime it’s almost hard not to admire the sheer eco-Orwellian chutzpah of Obama’s Alaska trip. I am sure that the great British author who invented the phrase “doublespeak” would be more than a little impressed.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).