Columbia University’s oral history of the Obama presidency consists of interviews with 470 people ranging from administration officials to activists who tried to shape Obama era public policy. It’s the “official” oral history, conducted with funding from the Obama Foundation, which I would argue makes the entire project unethical at its core. Academia has a duty to pursue truth uncorrupted by financial influence, which you can hardly do if your project is funded by the personal foundation of the controversial figure you’re supposed to be studying. Nevertheless, any giant repository of interview data will contain some revealing information, and there’s much to be learned about Obama by reading official accounts, like memoirs by sycophants or his own gargantuan self-exonerative autobiography.
The official oral history is mostly still unreleased, but Columbia has just put out a special preview of 17 interviews related to climate and the environment. And even though, predictably, it’s full of people praising Obama’s statesmanship and humility and wisdom and so forth, it also reinforces what critics have said for years: Obama mostly did not take the climate crisis seriously until far too late in his presidency, and activists had to fight him tooth and nail on issues where anyone who cared about the fate of the planet should have been on their side to begin with. Bill McKibben, in an interview for the project, has a damning verdict: “No matter how much I liked him, it was very clear he could care less about any of this stuff at some deep level, and wasn’t willing to sacrifice—suffer any political pain in order to raise the issue.”
It became clear early on in Obama’s presidency, McKibben says, that the administration felt it only had enough “political capital” to deal with healthcare, and so climate change fell by the wayside. “I don’t think there was any real hope that we were going to see significant climate action out of at least the first-term Obama administration,” McKibben says. Frances Beinecke of the National Resources Defense Council says that “We wanted climate to be on a par, and it wasn’t,” citing a relative lack of White House effort on even weak clean energy legislation. In his interview for the project, former Energy Secretary Steven Chu confirms that “a decision was made in the first year to concentrate on healthcare. At which the president took me aside and said, ‘Look, I know I said energy and healthcare, but next year; energy is next.’” McKibben explains why this approach of kicking the can down the road on climate was so infuriating to those who understood the nature of the problem:
“The thing to remember about climate change, and the reason that Obama’s failures on it and things are important, is because climate change, unlike every other political issue we’ve ever faced, is a timed test. … [O]nce you’ve melted the Arctic, no one’s got a plan for how to freeze it again. So that was always in my mind, and my impatience with Obama and many others on this front is that I think they tended to group it with other problems that they faced, and think about it in the same way that they thought about other things, as one item on a checklist.”
Chu, whose opinion of Obama is positive throughout, nevertheless quietly admits that Obama didn’t put much effort into trying to mobilize political support on climate:
I think, in terms of talking and dealing with Congress on the energy side, the president was more hands off—in my opinion. I’m not a historian. But looking back at how people deal with Congress, I would say, LBJ [Lyndon B. Johnson] is probably the most effective person. He was not afraid of browbeating people with a very strong will. And I think President Obama was almost the opposite, very gentlemanly: “Okay, I told you the facts. You’re reasonable people. You’re going to come to some conclusion.” … He was less connected with Congress than I would have hoped. … I remember this line in [the Spielberg film] Lincoln where Abraham Lincoln says, “I am cloaked in the immense authority of the president.” He wasn’t above shaking down people. He wasn’t above offering patron jobs, postmaster jobs, things like that, to get the Thirteenth Amendment. … [T]o shake down and use the power of the presidency to really garner votes was something I wish [Obama] had done more of. He was too much of a gentleman, too standoffish about that.
Chu even says that when members of the U.S. Senate voiced an interest in finding out what the White House wanted them to do about climate change, the White House didn’t give them any clear answer:
[T]he way most presidents operate is, they want to get the marching orders coordinated from the White House. At year two or three, I forget when, but there was a coalition. … And I would meet with them. I would not ask permission from the White House. … What should we, the United States, invest in, in order to deal with mitigating the risks of climate change? … And they said, “We’re not getting clear signals from the White House. They’re not really engaging us. So we want to hear from you.” I said, “Look, I’m not speaking for the White House. But if you want to know, this is what I think.” … That was, again, one of the signals I was getting by the time I was secretary, that the White House wasn’t as engaged as they should have been.
Some fascinating insights come from Courtney Hight, who left the White House to pursue environmental activism with the Sierra Club. Hight started as an Obama true believer, and still gets chills when she recalls will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” video. But Hight, like other young people, felt a sense of urgency about the climate crisis, and was exasperated not only by Obama’s failure to make the issue a priority, but his wholesale adoption of the lies pushed by the fossil fuel industry:
[O]ne of our challenges with President Obama was, he was using industry language to talk. He used “clean coal,” and I was like, Clean coal is a fake idea. It’s not real. And talking about natural gas as a transition fuel, which had been debunked as an idea even then. So that was a frustration. It’s like, Don’t use false language. You can be realistic and say it’s hard to do some of these things, but don’t push lies … .
She says that the conclusion of the young activists she was working with was that “he’s not as good on the issues as we thought he was.” From outside the White House, Hight and other environmental justice activists began to pressure Obama, though this was “definitely not as well received” as praise had been. Hight recounts a meeting that she and other environmental justice activists got with Obama at the White House:
We had prepped it as an accountability session with some asks. And our asks were, we need the president to end fossil fuel subsidies. It’s crazy that the government subsidizes the wealthiest industry in the world to kill us. We wanted more funding for the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], because we need them to actually set out [this] guidance and enforce all these rules to protect our health and deal with pollution. Then, we wanted the president to stop using the term “clean coal” and false industry language. Those were our asks going into it, and then with the opportunity for some young people from EJ communities to talk about their experience. So that was our intent [for] the meeting.
[Obama] comes in and he says, “So, I hear some of you are frustrated with me,” and he looks at me. And I was like, Whoa, this is going to be an interesting meeting; also I love you. I was like, I love you Barack Obama. And he walked around the room. We were in the Roosevelt Room. He shook everyone’s hand. He didn’t shake my hand. He walked by me, which was really interesting. So I was like, Okay, he’s a little upset. This is going to be wild.…He’s like, “Okay, you know what? You guys are right. Your job is actually to push me. Your job is to push the envelope, and my job is to govern. And you’re doing exactly that.” I was like, Thank you. Then he’s like, “I need you to organize. Go out there.” And also, “It’s not just me. It’s Congress and other people.” So I handed him the pamphlet for our conference and I said, “Yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re using your training model to train young people how to organize and go back in[to] their communities.” He would not look at me [laughs]. It was really so crazy. I was like, Oh my god. I love you. I’m sorry. Yes, he was very upset. And he sort of pushed the thing aside and didn’t acknowledge that I just handed it to him. It was interesting.
Hight gives Obama credit for ultimately admitting that the young activists had a point, and says she thinks he was just “frustrated that young people who he thought were on board with him fully weren’t fully happy.” Obama’s advice to the activists was that they needed to pressure him more, and Hight makes the excellent point that activist groups should have been more adversarial toward the president, because the fossil fuel industry doesn’t hesitate to exert pressure to get its own way. If environmental justice activists are willing to cut Democratic administrations slack, the administrations will have little incentive to prioritize environmental justice.
But why should Obama have even needed outside pressure to stop pushing fossil fuel industry talking points, if he was committed to doing the right thing? It has become abundantly clear over time that Obama was not actually committed to ending fossil fuel use. McKibben notes that Obama continued to push the benefits of fracking across all 8 years, and that
In the course of the Obama years, the United States passed Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the biggest producer of hydrocarbons in the world. That wasn’t entirely because of things the president was doing. Some of it was, but some of it was just what was happening with fracking and things. But it wasn’t something that the administration resisted in any way. In fact, last year, speaking to a crowd in Texas of oil men, Obama stood up and said, “You know how we became number one in the world in oil production? That was me,” he said to this cheering crowd of people, which I think is a reminder that he lived in a different mindset.
That “different mindset” led Obama not just to deprioritize climate change as an issue, but to take disastrous steps that worsened the climate crisis. As Kate Aronoff has reported, under Obama, the ban on exporting crude oil around the world was lifted, thanks to “the result of intense, multiyear lobbying efforts, helmed by the American Petroleum Institute and industry groups like Producers for American Crude Exports.” Obama’s love of bipartisanship caused him to appoint a fossil fuel industry scientist to the Energy Department, and the architect of his Clean Power Plan, Heather Zichal, left the administration to join the board of a natural gas company. In her interview, former managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Christy Goldfuss admits straight up that the Obama administration did not really take environmental justice seriously as an issue:
I think environmental justice was not the greatest part of President Obama’s legacy. I think there was a real sense that because he was the first Black president, that this didn’t need to be a key issue for him. When I came into the Council on Environmental Quality, there was a lot of, actually, resentment for a long time, from environmental justice leaders, who had really built relationships with President Clinton and felt like the executive order on environmental justice that they had formulated during President Clinton’s time in office had languished, and that they hadn’t been able to get the audience they wanted in the Obama administration.
McKibben argues in his interview that Obama strongly resisted activists’ calls to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline until the pressure became too strong and he had to give in. McKibben says the White House even turned away activists who tried to get Obama to reinstall the solar panels that had been on the White House during the Carter presidency. (Apparently they thought anything associated with Jimmy Carter was political kryptonite.) The Associated Press noted in 2013 that Obama had made it clear he was “sticking to a fossil-fuel dependent energy policy, delivering a blow to a monthslong, behind-the-scenes effort by nearly every major environmental group to convince the White House that the policy is at odds with his goals on global warming.”
Vox, in a comprehensive assessment of Obama’s climate legacy, reaches the dismal conclusion that “Obama’s climate policy in his first term was largely indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s,” and “there is simply far less substance to the Obama administration’s climate accomplishments than meets the eye.” The Guardian, in a startling 2016 investigation conducted in partnership with the Columbia Journalism school, found that the Obama administration’s support for fossil fuel projects was global in its scale:
“Barack Obama’s administration has spent nearly $34bn supporting 70 fossil fuel projects around the world. … This unprecedented backing of oil, coal and gas projects is an unexpected footnote to Obama’s own climate change legacy. The president has called global warming “terrifying” and helped broker the world’s first proper agreement to tackle it, yet his administration has poured money into developments that will push the planet even closer to climate disaster.
In the Columbia oral history, Obama climate envoy Todd Stern, reflecting on the history of international climate change negotiations from the disastrous Copenhagen summit (which he spins as not being a disaster) to the toothless Paris Agreement, openly admits that the U.S. under Obama was firm in rejecting what the rest of the world was demanding: a legally binding commitment on emissions reduction:
Remember, most countries in the world were still deeply attached to the notion of a legally binding agreement. The developing countries were mostly deeply attached to it on the basis that “You guys do it, not us.” But whatever, it was still a quite—not crazy perspective that if you were going to do something serious, it has to be legally binding. American NGOs thought the same thing, by and large. Over time, by the end of the year, I think that many of them were on board with what we were trying to do. But it was very upsetting to the Europeans. They really were in a very fixed mindset, which continued all the way deep into the Paris negotiations, that it’s got to be legally binding if it’s going to have any teeth to it, any kind of force. … [I]t was chaotic, and you were walking away from this central pillar of what would make it serious, I think, combined to lead people to have that reaction. For us, quite different, because of course we really didn’t want it to be legally binding, period.
Stern says this is because no legally binding commitment could pass the U.S. Senate, but the Center For Biological Diversity makes the legal case here that Obama could have made a legally binding commitment without Senate approval, and the fact that he didn’t even try is consistent with his lack of urgency or real effort on the climate issue generally.
There were some positive developments. Steven Chu says that while he had to fight the Friedmanites in the administration (like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner) on making clean energy loans (“they just felt that it was too much government getting into business, that the private sector should take care of it”), eventually the administration gave a huge boost to the solar industry. Vox praises Obama for new energy standards, issued “largely without fanfare or litigation, that reduce electricity used by everything from dishwashers to walk-in freezers.” Unfortunately, a lot of Obama’s attention to climate change was “too little, too late,” such as the Clean Power Plan, announced late in Obama’s presidency and immediately undone by Donald Trump.
What could have been accomplished by an administration that had treated climate change as a global emergency, rather than one of a series of issues that it hoped to get around to eventually? We will never know. What we do know is that Barack Obama has shown over and over again that he was never really serious about the “hope” and “change” that he promised. The betrayal of his earnest and idealistic supporters helped make an entire generation more cynical about politics, and meant that activists have had to do far more work trying to get modest measures on climate passed than they might have had to if Obama had meant what he said.