President Obama has a problem. He seems to be losing the ability to converse with the people he works for, and he resorts to being snarky. Recently, he gave what was billed as a major speech on climate change. In an effort to win friends and influence people, he decided let the public know that he had no time to convene a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Imagine that. If he does for the Flat Earth Society what he has done for gun control, it is a sure bet most Americans will be signing up to join the society by the end of the year.
In his speech, Mr. Obama announced that he wants to reduce carbon emissions by using executive orders. He seems to have recognized that his track record put legislation out of reach. It is an interesting idea coming from a fellow who has had such trouble being an effective executive. Judging from the operation of the Internal Revenue Service, General Services Administration, National Security Agency, State Department and Secret Service, to name a few, it is not at all clear he knows how to run a railroad, even one with Lionel livery, much less manage the nation’s energy consumption. Perhaps he could start with all those unsupervised agencies. Just imagine all the carbon that could be conserved by eliminating their frivolous conferences.
It is an interesting idea. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed at the so-called Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It set goals for nations to meet in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Remember that Bill Clinton and Al Gore were elected later that year. They had eight whole years to figure out how to draft executive orders to cut carbon emissions. After all, by its own admission, the federal government is the largest consumer of energy — hence, carbon polluter — in the United States. There was plenty of opportunity for Clinton-Gore to do something effective in this area, like use the power of government procurement to develop more fuel-efficient vehicles and renewable energy sources.
The inconvenient truth is that they did nothing. In fact, President Clinton signed legislation to subsidize the sale of large SUVs, and his administration bought them for every petty functionary in government. Recall that he even got haircuts powered by the turbofan jet engines of Air Force One, by then a wide-body Boeing 747. One might think that if a narrow-body plane was big enough for Ronald Reagan, it would have been big enough for successors of lesser stature.
It is do as I say, not as I do, for the Democrats. Having engineered the failure of the so-called voluntary approach of the Rio Convention, the carbon glutton known as Al Gore flew Air Force Two to Japan to rescue what became the Kyoto Protocol, which recognized the failure of governments like his to do anything useful. Unfortunately, the product of his profligate waste of fossil fuel was dead on arrival in the United States Senate, and never entered into force. The best that can be said of it is that it did result in sequestering the carbon contained in the paper it was printed on.
Government, as is clear from the cruelly named Affordable Care Act, never met a problem it could not make worse. The healthy skepticism the American public has for federal action on climate change may be a result less of doubts about climate science than of mistrust for political science. The federal government got its reputation for waste and inefficiency the old fashion way — it earned it. In fact, it works hard to affirm it every day. It makes you wonder whether the real Flat Earth Society belongs to those who think the solution to these kinds of problems lies with government.
Without action from Washington, more precisely in spite of Washington’s efforts, U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases have declined substantially from the levels predicted at the time the Rio Convention was negotiated. Even Mr. Obama concedes the United States is ahead of its trading partners in reducing carbon emissions. Hydraulic fracturing has contributed to the use of clean fuels, such as natural gas. Embarrassed, government finally is making an effort. Mr. Obama recently ordered agencies to try to reduce their own emissions of greenhouse gases. To date, there has been no transparent indication whether this gesture is any more effective than the administration’s other initiatives. All agencies are doing is producing red-light, yellow-light and green-light report cards that would make a third-grader proud. One thing it has not done is curtail substantially the use of official aircraft. The first meaningful step in that direction was the end of Nancy Pelosi’s term as speaker. She lost the privilege of flying Gulfstreams on the taxpayer’s dime. Taking a cue from Al Gore, her contribution to the failed climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 consisted of releasing a few more tons of carbon into the atmosphere with the Air Force jets she and her colleagues used for the junket.
The president is not a scientist, but he is in charge of his government. Until the government he nominally heads is willing to take meaningful action and clean up its act, it is hard to make much of a case for broader action. If he really wants to cool off the planet, he can order the nation’s worst polluter to step up and set a real example. Washington contributes much too much hot air to the atmosphere already, and that is not being snarky.
Warren L. Dean Jr. practices law in Washington, D.C, and is an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.