Lessons from Obama on clean energy

In this photo taken Jan. 18, 2017, President Barack Obama speaks during his final presidential news conference, in the briefing room of the White House in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

In this photo taken Jan. 18, 2017, President Barack Obama speaks during his final presidential news conference, in the briefing room of the White House in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Just as his eight-year term comes to a close, President Obama published an article titled “The irreversible momentum of clean energy” in the renowned scientific journal, Science, last week -in a final effort - advocating a clean energy future. Perhaps no president since Thomas Jefferson was as interested in science as Obama, but even as Obama's science legacy encourages leadership in combating issues like climate change, we can’t forget the blights and shortfalls of the Obama administration — namely the $34 billion invested in fossil fuel energy around the world by the federal Import-Export Bank, according to a Colombia Journalism School report last month. 

It wasn’t Obama’s first time publishing in a scientific journal. Just last summer, he wrote an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association [JAMA] titled "United States Health Care Reform: Progress to Date and Next Steps.” Just before running for president, he published a 2008 paper in JAMA. He and Hillary Clinton published an article in 2006 on medical malpractice in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

Publishing in Science is indeed something entirely new for any sitting president, despite circumventing peer review — the vetting process required of academic papers before publication. In the paper, Obama emphasized that transitioning to clean energy will only grow our economy; especially as clean energy inevitably takes over global markets.  

"Since 2008, the United States has experienced the first sustained period of rapid GHG [Greenhouse Gas] emissions reductions and simultaneous economic growth on record,” Obama wrote. "At the same time, evidence is mounting that any economic strategy that ignores carbon pollution will impose tremendous costs to the global economy.”

He concludes with a section titled “Global Momentum," pointing out that other countries are also trying to “reap" the benefits of clean energy. 

Even as these words advocate an environmentally responsible future, Obama does not mention that his administration provided about three times more financing for overseas fossil fuel projects than the previous Bush administration — projects including an enormous coal-fired power plant rising above villages in South Africa, a coal mine and power plant in India, gas exploration projects in Mexico, and a $4.9 billion petrochemical project in Saudi Arabia. 

According to the Colombia Journalism School’s report, the emissions from these overseas projects within the next 15 years would equal about 2.5 billion tons, assuming they run at full capacity. This is the same amount of emissions reductions predicted over a 15 year period if Obama’s clean power plan were enacted this year! 

Using taxpayer money, the Import-Export Bank provides financing and insurance to overseas companies that use American-made goods. For example, the U.S. finances a coal power plant project in South Africa with the agreement that American companies will be hired to build it. This brings energy to developing countries and encourages U.S. export, but ultimately spreads fossil fuel dependence and contributes to climate change.

If we really want to ensure a environmentally responsible clean energy future, we can’t think within our own border. After all, climate change does not discriminate among countries. 

In his article last week, Obama wrote, "We have long known, on the basis of a massive scientific record, that the urgency of acting to mitigate climate change is real and cannot be ignored.” 

Obama may have paved the way for climate policy and clean energy in the U.S., but we won’t get anywhere if our fossil fuel contributions abroad erase the progress we make here. This first step is making sure we remain leaders in the Paris Agreement moving forward with the Trump’s presidency.  


Diler Haji is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at diler.haji@uconn.edu.