Obama on 'Terrifying' Threat of Climate Change

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Date: Sept. 8, 2016
Publisher: The New York Times Company
Document Type: Video file
Duration: 00:13:43
Length: 1,985 words
Content Level: (Level 4)

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In an exclusive interview on his legacy, President Obama speaks to The Times's Mark Landler and Coral Davenport on climate change while visiting Marine Corps Base Hawaii
The New York Times Company

My top science manager John Holdren periodically will issue some chart or report or graph in the morning meetings and they're terrifying and everybody starts off the day thinking about okay, we've really got to get on this. We've got to pay attention to this.

First of all Mr. President, thank you very much for talking to us and doing so in such a lovely spot. We're told you've thought a lot about how and why civilizations collapse and we wanted to ask you, do you believe the threat from climate change is dire enough that it could precipitate the collapse of our civilization?

Well, I don't know that I can look into a crystal ball and know exactly how this plays out but what we do know is that historically when you see severe environmental strains of one sort or another on cultures, on civilizations, on nations that the byproducts of that are unpredictable and can be very dangerous. And what we know is that if the current projections, the current trend lines on a warming planet continue it is certainly going to be enormously disruptive worldwide and just imagine for example, monsoon patterns shifting in south Asia where you've got over a billion people. If you have even a portion of those billion people displaced you now have the sorts of refugee crises and potential conflicts that we hadn't seen in our lifetimes. Then you're looking at a much more dangerous world and severe strains on nation states, on communities, on economies.

And given the magnitude of that threat why do you think it's been so difficult for you to mobilize public opinion at home about the necessity of confronting this issue?

Well, the good news is during the course of my presidency I think we've solidified in popular opinion the fact that climate change is real, that it's important and we should the do somebody about it. So the problem is not that people don't believe in climate change. You know there are pockets of resistance particularly in certain congressional caucuses.

Actually we've had flat line temperatures for the last eight years.

Global temperature changes when they exist correlate with sun output and ocean cycles.

We keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record. I asked the Chair, you know what this is? It's a snowball and that's just from outside here. So it's very, very cold out, very unseasonable so here Mr. President. Catch this.

But if you talk to the average person I think they understand that this is something serious and we've got to do something about it. Translating concern into action is the challenge and part of what makes climate change difficult is that it is not an instantaneous catastrophic event. It's a slow-moving issue that on a day-to-day basis people don't experience and don't see. And so part of our goal throughout my presidency has been to raise awareness but also then to create framework structures, rules that allow us to take specific action in ways that create economic opportunity and improve people's well-being as opposed to people feeling as if there are these enormous trade-offs that necessarily make life a lot harder for them. And so that we can say at long last this was the moment when we decided to confront America's energy challenge.

In 2009, President Obama pushed Congress to pass a cap and trade plan where the government sets annual cap on greenhouse gas emissions and allows businesses to buy and sell permits to pollute. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate. Later that year President Obama attended a summit of world leaders in Copenhagen aimed at forging a new treaty to combat climate change. His speech at the summit was praised.

I believe we can act boldly and decisively in the face of a common threat.

But the United States was criticized for its failure to enact climate change policies at home. The summit ended in a meltdown with no agreement on a treaty. Mr. President you tried but failed to take action in your first term. The cap and trade bill failed in the Senate. The Copenhagen climate change talks ended in collapse. What lessons did you learn from those episodes?

When cap and trade came up I was certainly disappointed that many Republicans who previously had said they were more concerned about this suddenly went the other way as the politics of it shifted. People felt if we're hemorrhaging jobs and the economy is contracting is this the time for us to be able to move this issue forward aggressively? But what we did do is to use the model we had created with the auto industry to start thinking how do we engage industry and how do we engage states on a whole set of rules and steps that even though short of big comprehensive legislation could still get the job done? And I think one of the most important things that people should know is that here, in 2016 we've actually achieved more carbon emissions than we would have under the Cap and Trade Bill that was presented and went down in the House so it taught us that there's just more than one way to skin a cat. And what I was able to get done in Copenhagen was to at least extract the basic principle that if we're going to solve this problem every country has to be involved not just the wealthy countries. That seems like a small thing but that was the mechanism whereby we were able in subsequent meetings to begin negotiations with China ultimately, leading to our joint announcement where China said it would set targets and restrain itself.

The November 2014 announcement the President refers to is a significant one. The U.S. confirmed that it would double the pace of yearly emissions reductions and China for the first time announced it would limit its own emissions.

I commended President Xi, his team and the Chinese government for the commitment they are making.

I'm wondering whether there is anything you can recall and share with us about why the party leadership in China would be willing to take much painful steps? Did you have any kind of interesting exchanges with the President that gave you an insight into that?

I had been in contact with President Xi prior to my arrival and given him a sense of if you are prepared to do this here's what we're going to be doing and for us to be able to make a joint announcement I think would signal the capacity of the U.S. and China to lead the world on an issue of critical importance to everybody. One of the reasons I think that China was prepared to go further than had been prepared to go previously is that their overriding concern tends to be political stability. Interestingly, one of their greatest political vulnerabilities is the environment. People who go to Beijing know that it can be hard to breathe. So I think the Chinese party leadership recognized that they had to rethink how they approach environmental issues and we saw that as an opening for us to be able to say not only can you address what is an increasingly important domestic issue, you can also work with us to create a multilateral framework that shows China's emerging leadership on the world stage. For the incredible work that you and your team have been doing --

Back at home Obama struggled to find common ground with Republicans on his own climate policies and elected to take aggressive some Republicans would say unconstitutional, steps.

There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change.

His Clean Power Plant is an expansion of the regulatory authority of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA is setting the first ever nationwide standards to end the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from power plants.

You've gotten a lot of blow back for this. What are your misgivings about it and how much do you worry that this creative interpretation of the law will be legally doable?

Well, if Donald Trump is elected for example, you have a pretty big shift in how the EPA operates and there is no doubt that when you have a legislative ratification of a policy that it is firmer. It is less subject to reversal but keep in mind that what happens when we come up with smart policies and regulations that prove to work it becomes stickier. It harder then to reverse so all these individual and collective steps that have been taken they lock in. They imbed us moving in a certain direction and for somebody then to come in and say well we're going to just tear this out root and branch, it's not just a matter now of reversing what I've done. It's a matter of reversing what a whole a lot of people are seeing works.

You talked about all this buy-in from utilities, states, industry but one of the things that is necessary for the Clean Power Plan to be implemented is for it to stand up to legal challenge.


The Supreme Court has put a halt on implementing it right now and one of the most prominent critics of the legal structure of the Clean Power Plan is your own mentor at Harvard Law School Larry Tribe. He has said that your use of the Clean Air Act to put forth the clean power plan is a vast legal overreach. He has compared it, direct quote, to burning the Constitution. What is your reaction to Professor Tribe's legal criticism?

I can say that legally he is wrong and I think most legal commentators also think he's wrong. I think he's in the minority in the view that he's taking. But ultimately what really counts is what the D.C. Circuit and if it gets there, the Supreme Court thinks about it. And I'm very confident that the Clean Power Plan will be upheld.

If it is upheld there will be some stark economic tradeoffs if it's implemented. If it stands up to legal challenges essentially the Clean Power Plan will eventually end demand for coal power. What do you owe the workers and the people in coal communities who will be hurt, who will lose their jobs, who will lose their lively hoods as a result of this?

Well I think we as a country owe everybody opportunity and if they're in a sector that because of the necessities of doing something about climate change are going to be adversely impacted then we need to be there for them. So what we owe the remaining people who are making a living mining coal is to be honest with them and to say that look, the economy is shifting. How we use energy is shifting. That's going to be true here but it's also going to be true internationally and how can we take your skills and talents and work ethic that you've shown in this coal mine and use it to build some wind turbines or use it to install solar panels? I think there are a lot of folks in West Virginia and Kentucky and probably southern Illinois who do think that the reason they're having a tough time is because Obama and the EPA and now of course Hillary Clinton you know we're all trying to destroy them but what I want to do and I think we should all want to do is to have an honest conversation about how do we may sure these communities thrive with the energy industries of the 21rst century not of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Mr. President, thank you very much.

I enjoyed it very much. Thank you.

Us too. Thank you.

Thank you.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CT463493136