Obama's oil failure

By spending his time berating BP chief Tony Hayward, US president Barack Obama has cast himself in the role of the furious but hapless bystander.

Whatever happened to global warming? The political caravan, we are told, has moved on. Climate change is yesterday’s story. Today’s big threat comes not from burning too much oil, but from the countless millions of barrels of the stuff that have been pumping into the Gulf of Mexico from a leaking BP rig.

The Deepwater Horizon crisis is a reminder that politicians can handle only one challenge at a time. Barack Obama had shown signs of being different. Yet even this supremely self-possessed politician has forgotten how to walk and chew gum. A president who used to pride himself on staying calm now feels it necessary to prove he can panic with the best of them.

Last year Obama declared that the uncontrolled build-up of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere posed an existential threat to the future of the planet. Only the other day, his administration’s first National Security Strategy said the danger from climate change was "real, urgent and severe”.

Those words, though, were written before Obama read the opinion polls and concluded he had not been doing enough to feel the pain of the good people of Louisiana and the other Gulf states. He is taking lessons in how to emote lest the rising public anger at the impact of the spill turn it into his presidency’s Katrina.

BD (Before Deepwater) Obama’s daughter Malia wanted to know what her father was going to do to prevent global warming from destroying the planet. Malia’s main concern now, her father intones, is the effect of the oil disaster on the marine eco-system and on the livelihoods of millions of Americans living along the Gulf shores.

It is nice, I suppose, that the world’s most powerful leader listens to his children. But in truth, the disaster has shown Obama at his worst. Whatever happened to that White House promise that he would look for the opportunity in every adversity?

I do not carry any candles for BP. Nor am I terribly fussed if a US president thinks there are votes to be garnered by stirring up anti-British feeling. The Brits will get over it. It is fair to say that BP has badly fumbled its response to the crisis. If prior negligence is proved, the company must surely stump up billions of dollars in recompense for the havoc wrought by the spill. All that said, surely the leader of the world’s most powerful nation can think of better things to do than to think up new ways to vilify BP’s chief executive Tony Hayward?

He might, for example, draw the pretty straightforward connection between the unavoidable environmental hazards of drilling for hydrocarbons below the ocean floor and America’s insatiable appetite for oil. The reason the Deepwater Horizon rig is there is because the US consumes a quarter of world oil production even though it has only one-twentieth of the population.

Those two statistics, of course, are also a big part of the explanation as to why the planet faces an unsustainable rise in temperature. If the world’s richest nation and biggest oil consumer is not ready to curb the greenhouse emissions that cause global warming, no one else, least of all China, is going to make the switch to a low carbon economy.

Obama says in the National Security Strategy that the US must exercise leadership by example. Well, reducing US oil consumption would mean less deep-sea drilling, and less risk of another blow-out; it would encourage other governments to take global warming seriously and help to slow the rise in the earth’s temperature. The president could then tell his children that they can sleep soundly on both counts.

As it happens, Obama has drawn a link between oil production and climate change. It is precisely the wrong one. Until his post-disaster moratorium on offshore drilling, the president had given the oil companies a free hand in the waters of the Gulf in the hope that this would help him secure Congressional backing for legislation to impose a modest price on carbon. This rather perverse bargain now looks frayed to say the least.

To be fair, Obama’s administration has not been alone in backing away from serious action to tackle global warming since the disappointing outcome of December’s Copenhagen summit. Last month the European Commission published proposals urging the 27-member bloc to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than had been intended. Governments recoiled in horror.

The original European plan was for a cut in emissions of 20 per cent by 2020, relative to 1990 levels. The Commission judges that the sharp fall in economic activity during the recent recession renders this too soft a target and wants to raise it to 30 per cent. Politicians and business leaders are aghast. European governments, they protest, are all going bust. Their economies may tip back into recession. This is no time, they exclaim, to burden industry with additional costs.

This answer mirrors that of Obama: let’s get back to business as usual before we start worrying again about climate change. Both responses miss the point.

Look closely enough into the thicket and you can find a binding thread. It is called sustainability. This, I know, used to be a word that belonged to people who wore beaded hair and sandals. Now it explains the nexus of complex, global problems that face western governments.

Climate change, deep sea drilling and economic growth are not issues that can be neatly separated. Each is sustainable only in so far as it pays attention to the other. Politicians, in other words, need to learn how to walk, chew gum and whistle at the same time. As Obama’s National Security Strategy puts it: a warming planet will lead to "the degradation of land across the globe...there is no effective solution to climate change that does not depend upon all nations taking responsibility for their own actions and for the planet that we leave behind.”

The best political leaders are the ones who show they are in command of events, even when things go badly wrong. By spending his time berating Hayward and promising to "kick ass”, the US president has cast himself in the role of the furious but hapless bystander.

Obama cannot fix a leak a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico. He could, if he recalled some of the soaring rhetoric of his campaign, use the disaster to shape a new conversation about the unavoidable links between oil spills, climate change and sustainable economic growth.

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