‘[T]he growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other’ — Barack Obama
‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive’ — Donald Trump
It might seem to be counterintuitive to critique Obama’s environmental policy at a time when the next administration’s beliefs regarding the environment, energy, and climate change raise far more profound questions and concerns. However, it is precisely because Trump and his administration will soon take control of United States energy production and funding, which makes it imperative that Obama’s energy policy is scrutinised.
Obama’s track record on climate change and environmentally friendly energy production appears to be good. He consistently raised the issue of the need for a responsible energy policy; warning that ‘our addiction to fossil fuels and foreign oil perennially threatened our planet and our national security’ and that his policies have ‘helped us reduce the dangerous emissions that contribute to climate change’. He has undoubtedly had success in this area since his Clean Power Plan is estimated to reduce carbon emissions by 2.5 billion tons over 15 years.
Against this backdrop, however, earlier this month the Guardian and Columbia Journalism School’s Energy and Environment Reporting Project investigated fossil fuel project funding overseen by Obama. They uncovered that the US Export-Import Bank has funded $34 billion worth of fossil fuel projects abroad during Obama’s presidency, about three times the amount issued during George Bush’s two terms. If all funded projects are running at full capacity, this would produce the same carbon emissions saved by Obama’s Clean Power Plan initiative. Funding dirty fossil fuel projects overseas highlight a profound contradiction at the heart of Obama’s ‘responsible’ environmental policy. As he himself recognised: ‘an addiction to fossil fuels has threatened our planet’. This is irrespective of where such policy is carried out since the adverse effects of fossil fuel production do not adhere to territorial jurisdictions but happen globally.
The whole point of switching to clean energy in order to combat climate change is that it requires global effort: it is counterintuitive and contradictory to practice a clean energy policy at home and fund fossil fuel production elsewhere.
Such projects have also created an unhealthy and disrupted living environment for the local communities. In India, local communities complained of coal ash blowing into villages, and raised concern that the water supply is now causing ‘respiratory and stomach problems’. One woman reported that she has been struggling with strong pains in my stomach ever since they started dumping their trash into our groundwater’. The US-backed projects in South Africa and Australia have also led to air pollution, sound pollution, a lack of water, and deforestation. Meanwhile, the plants themselves are sites of danger for locals, with 19 fatalities at the Sasan project, in India, alone. The effects are thus profound and are now a daily reality for many living nearby.
So this is not just a story about a contradictory energy policy with adverse long-term environmental effects. There are profound implications immediately felt by the individuals living close to such projects. While funding fossil fuel production in overseas locations, the US government have failed to resolve or even recognise such issues. Indeed, as a villager living near the Sasan project in India recognised: ‘they do nothing. We have complained a countless number of times’. As such, the US employ a policy which utilises the resources of a foreign territory but simultaneously fails to take responsibility for its adverse effects. The western imperialist tradition seems to linger here. As Edward Said reminds us, imperialism produces a ‘hierarchy of spaces’ in which the metropolitan centre comes first and the overseas territory comes second as a place simply of ‘economic exploitation’. It can be said that the US government’s fossil fuel policy is characteristic of contemporary imperialism; an imperialism which manifests and remodels itself in new and often subtle ways and can thrive without physical control.
This has occurred under the watch of a president who, at least in public communications, recognised the threat climate change poses to the 21st Century. The next president does not. In his typically unabashed partisan style, Trump has made clear that America’s needs sit above that of any other nation state and people. As part of this rejection of the outside world, he has vowed to create ‘American energy dominance’, to ‘cancel the Paris climate agreement’ and ‘stop all payments to UN global warming programs’. While the veracity of such claims is undoubtedly questionable given his record of outlandish rhetoric that has since been rowed back on, the notion that the adverse effects of fossil fuel plants overseas will become a concern for Trump is beyond farce.
Looking forward to this arguably bleak environmental future, on the one hand, we might see an increase in such projects which prioritise economic benefit before any other considerations; an extension of Obama’s imperialist style policy whereby the US hold a monetary stake but a lack of responsibility. Alternatively, Trump’s administration might roll back the funding of foreign fossil fuel production. We might, however, begin to see similar effects in the US as its domestic production increases, while the adverse impact of current overseas projects endures.
Irrespective of whether this continues outside or within the US, the very real danger is that such stories no longer become newsworthy. US foreign fossil fuel production funding is arguably newsworthy precisely because of Obama’s public stance: it highlights a contradiction at the heart of Obama’s energy policy. The concern is that this will no longer be the case under Trump’s presidency since his energy policy is not aimed at helping the environment. Trump’s environmental policy certainly demands scrutiny going forward.