Please support our coverage of democratic movements and become a supporting member of

In one of the the most significant policy proposals of his presidency, Barack Obama committed his administration to global leadership against severe climate change Tuesday, and strongly implying that the Keystone pipeline will be rejected and seeming to endorse the growing movement to divest from polluting energy corporations.

On the Keystone controversy, Obama carefully sided with environmentalists by saying that any permit decision will depend on whether the “net impacts” of the pipeline project   “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” While a decision by the State Department is still pending, several environmental reviews already have determined that the Canadian-based project will have such adverse effects.

Using the criteria of “net impacts” widens the scope of review to include emissions all the way from excavating the Canadian tar sands to the impacts on aquifers and farmland soils along the entire stretch of the projected project. While environmental scientists will have to argue their case before John Kerry’s State Department, the Obama criteria seems to tilt the case in their favor. To approve the project after the president’s speech would undermine its essence and purpose.

While Obama’s phrasing on Keystone will be the most carefully parsed, his most dramatic sentence was only one word long: “Divest”, he said towards the end of his remarks, implicitly endorsing the environmental movement’s goal of pushing universities and other institutions into divesting their holdings in fossil fuel corporations.

Obama is deeply familiar with divestment campaigns ever since his first political speech, at Occidental College on Feb. 18, 1981, against pension investments in South African apartheid.  Obama’s exact call to his young audience at Georgetown was: “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest.” [applause] The line was a response to the demands of in particular, which has promised massive civil disobedience if Obama approves the pipeline.

The most important policy content of  the speech was Obama’s order to “put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants, and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.”

Those standards, based on his authority under the Clean Air Act, will be bitterly contested and possibly delayed by the Fossil Fuel Lobby at every level. Currently, the president pointed out, there are no federal limits on carbon emissions pumped into the air from power plants. The coming Obama orders may be sufficient to prevent any new coal-fired power plants and gradually wind down existing ones, which has been a huge priority of the Sierra Club [and incidentally, New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg].

In addition, Obama ordered a dramatic increase in the use of green energy, doubling once more the doubling he already has achieved in the deployment of wind and solar energy, this time by sharp increases in Pentagon procurement and installations on public lands. Also the administration will set tougher energy efficiency standards for appliances, and support massive mitigation measures to protect farmlands, population centers and coastal areas from extreme storm and drought conditions.

Finally, Obama will renew his global effort to spur the campaign against global warming. His recent summit with the Chinese leadership yielded an important agreement to phase out dangerous hydroflurocarbons. China’s participation in conservation efforts is considered essential if only to neutralize the conservative argument that the Chinese gain a competitive economic advantage by avoiding environmental costs.

Questions still remain about parts of the Obama program, including his avoidance of a definitive position on fracking, his nebulous concept of a global free trade agreement for renewables, and his endorsement of two new nuclear plants being sited in Georgia and South Carolina. Obama still clings to the notion that natural gas, with fracking, can be a “bridging fuel” to renewable resources [a position which I took in 1980, based on then-existing knowledge].

Obama is unlikely to retreat, at least in rhetoric, from his “all-of-the-above” energy platform, but this speech moves his commitment in the direction of conservation-and-renewables more than ever before. As a second-term incumbent he may be more interesting in legacy than yielding to the powerful coal industry’s agenda. Whatever progress Obama makes in spite of Congressional opposition could lock the two political parties into a gradual energy Armageddon. 

Tom Hayden was the chair of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Solar Energy Council in 1980 and chaired the California Senate’s environmental committee in the 1990s. He is author of The Lost Gospel of the Earth.