The Australian

By Steven F. Hayward

When he clinched the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2008, Barack Obama claimed that "generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment ... when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal".

Right now, however, honest environmentalists are telling their children that Obama stood aside while the House of Representatives' legislation on climate mitigation died in the Senate, despite impassioned pleas for him to make an effort to push the bill across the finish line. And despite Obama's 11th-hour intervention in Copenhagen in 2009, the UN Kyoto process hit the wall.

Meanwhile, the hydrocarbon energy boom continues in the US. The natural gas boom delivered by new drilling technology employing hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") gets most of the notice, but US oil production is also unexpectedly soaring, reversing a steady 20-year decline. The 40 per cent increase in US oil production during the past five years has had the concomitant effect of reducing US oil imports by a third. The fall in natural gas prices — from nearly $US14 per thousand cubic feet a few years ago to around $US3 today — is rejuvenating American chemical and manufacturing industries, and lowering energy costs for consumers.

Whereas the US thought 10 years ago it would soon need to import natural gas to meet its needs, it is now facing the prospect of becoming a major exporter. Meanwhile, the popular "peak oil" hypothesis is in disgrace. All of the recent projections forecast that the age of hydrocarbon dominance (including coal) will last several decades longer than previously thought.

But Obama has drunk so deeply of the anti-hydrocarbon Kool Aid that the hydrocarbon boom is a deep embarrassment at some level. In his inaugural address on January 21, Obama promised that "we will respond to the challenge of climate change". In his State of the Union a few weeks later, he called for congress to pass legislation to enact a cap-and-trade system, or an emissions trading scheme.

But such a carbon price proposal is not coming back, even if Democrats reclaim the house and hold the Senate in the 2014 elections. House Democrats never want to hear the phrase again; next to Obamacare, voting for the cap-and-trade bill in 2009 that was defeated in the Senate the following year was the most unpopular vote they cast during that 2009-10 congressional term.

The White House has also specifically ruled out proposing the superior fallback position — a carbon tax — though it is possible Obama would gleefully accept one if Republicans proposed it as part of a tax reform deal. The likelihood of any climate legislation passing the Republican house is as remote as the party suddenly declaring their love for Obamacare.

To be sure, Obama has proposed further regulation of greenhouse gases through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act. But the process of delegating discretion to the regulatory agencies to decide what concrete targets to meet and what policy means should be used is very slow. And broad rule-makings are usually challenged in court by industry or environmental groups.

Meanwhile, Obama and the climate campaign are pushing uphill against public opinion as well as the basic economics of energy. The best public polls — such as Pew and Gallup — that ask the same questions year-on-year find public belief in catastrophic climate change continues to ebb. Pew's annual issue poll continues to rank climate change last out of the 20 most important issues facing the nation. This is a movement that has run completely out of gas, so to speak.

Substantial climate policy progress in the US was supposed to be the key to reviving the UN process. Instead, Kyoto has expired without a successor. Without serious policy action from Washington, it is unlikely that rearranging the diplomatic deckchairs can save this sinking ship. Carl Pope, the recently retired executive director of the green Sierra Club, has called Obama "the best environmental president since Theodore Roosevelt". Yet if you look at the matter honestly, you'd have to conclude that Obama has turned out to be the third term for George W. Bush.

This article, an extract from the US Studies Centre's journal