President Barack Obama looks at Bear Glacier during a boat tour of the Kenai Fjords National Park Seward, Alaska last September. | Getty
It's no accident the president rejected the Keystone pipeline before he seals a global deal to combat climate change.
Fire up Air Force One. President Barack Obama’s headed to Paris to try to save the world...
After a year of quiet diplomacy ahead of next month’s 190-country climate change conference, Obama took the most public, contested step yet in his second-term transformation into the greenest of U.S. presidents: rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline.
The project, which waited seven years for a verdict, assumed outsize importance for both sides, Obama said. It wouldn’t do the environmental damage that greens warned of, but it also wouldn’t do much to build American jobs or change the country’s energy resources math, as proponents argued.
But by the time he was wrapping up his remarks Friday morning in the Roosevelt Room, Obama pivoted away from chiding environmentalists and Republicans to argue that Keystone XL was important in a different way: "Approving this project would have undercut our global leadership on climate.”
The president and his aides repeatedly talked about the decision Friday in terms of global leadership. That global leadership, Obama confirmed after months of speculation, is going to take him to France right after Thanksgiving for the Paris climate talks, where he will try to seal what would be the biggest, most significant international agreement on combating carbon emissions and climate change — arguably bigger and longer lasting than anything else he or anyone else has ever done in office.
“If we want to prevent the worst effects of climate change, the time to act is now,” Obama said. “Not later. Not someday. Right now."
There’s a clear connection between the Keystone decision and Paris, White House press secretary Josh Earnest added later in the day.
“It seems obvious to me that the authors of this report were mindful of the upcoming international meeting to discuss climate change,” Earnest said.
Asked whether the president sees himself as saving the world, Earnest suppressed a laugh.
“I think what the president sees himself trying to do is continue to mobilize the international community to respond to the urgent threat that is posed by climate change,” Earnest said, adding that “this is one of those situations [where] … the United States is uniquely positioned to convince other countries to take steps to combat climate change.”
Nothing Obama’s done yet as president compares in scale to the climate talks. The Iran nuclear agreement is a landmark achievement, but it's focused on one unhinged regime threatening one region of the world. The White House spent the last day being pummeled for admitting the obvious, that it wasn’t actively pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace process during the rest of Obama’s term, but those are just two countries. Obamacare’s changed the health of millions of people, but that’s millions, not billions, and just in the United States.
Climate change affects everyone, everywhere, and that’s how they think about it in the White House. Securing real movement to stop it would make Obama not just a world leader, but a leader of the world. This is securing the planet, and redirecting the course of billions of lives, and Obama’s been talking more and more in those kind of bigger terms and the position that puts him in.
Not insignificantly, if Obama gets his way, he’ll also reverse one of the most embarrassing moments of his own presidency, when he rushed to Copenhagen in December 2009 for an eleventh-hour speech urging the world to sign an agreement at the last big climate conference, only to have the speech knocked for its halfheartedness and the talks collapse right after he gave it.
Not this time. The Keystone XL pipeline, a State Department official said, was “a test of U.S. resolve” that will make an agreement in Paris now easier to get. The pipeline itself isn’t a big deal, the official said, but rejecting it will encourage countries all over the world to cut short their own projects.
“It’s absolutely true that the perception of U.S. leadership on climate change, the perception of what this president and this administration have been doing and the resolve they’ve been showing, has been enormously important to the U.S. posture internationally,” the official said.
Paris has been a constant and growing theme for the White House over the course of this year, part of all the domestic conversations about new environmental executive actions, a topic on the table every time Obama’s traveled abroad or welcomed a world leader to the White House. He’s trying to get big countries to agree to big concessions, and little countries to believe that they won’t get shafted by the big countries making promises and not following through.
“We view this as an opportunity,” a senior administration official said at the White House late last month. “This is a significant undertaking, and obviously the president is devoting a lot of his time and energy and political capital to this issue.”
What happened in Copenhagen is still a sore topic for White House officials, but what they like to stress is that the agreement that they’re hoping to get now is both bigger and better — and might actually get done: forward-looking, with a more specific framework, and starting with China and the United States on close to the same page.
Obama's full remarks on Keystone XL
To secure all of that, the administration official said, “the United States was going to need to act domestically in a way that was seen as credible and as commensurate to our role in the global economy and our role in addressing this issue.”
What will actually come out of Paris isn’t clear. Obama, Pope Francis and other world leaders — with cooperation from major players, including the Chinese president, Indian prime minister and German chancellor — have helped create enough momentum that most people expect the talks to produce at least some kind of agreement. But officials involved have already gotten squishy in talking about how binding it would be, how much in emissions it would actually cut, what kind of progress would count as success. Few expect anymore the original goal of an agreement to guarantee that would reduce global temperatures by 2 degrees.
Even the absolute best case, of course, would only be an agreement, with follow-through that won’t be clear until long after Obama’s out of office.
The worst case isn’t out of their minds at the White House either. Unlike Copenhagen, Obama’s going to Paris for the beginning of the conference — that way he can have the spotlight of urging the world to action but keep the insurance policy of being safely back in Washington in case the talks collapse again.
In the scale of what the White House is hoping to achieve, the political attacks that came in over the decision didn’t add up to much.
“This decision isn’t surprising, but it is sickening,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). “If the president wants to spend the rest of his time in office catering to special interests, that’s his choice to make. But it’s just wrong.”
The people involved in the decision didn’t seem too worried.
“It is a critical time for climate change,” the State Department official said. “The test of U.S. resolve is most clearly when decisions come down the pipe that are hard ones.”