Obama's climate legacy: What will he accomplish in his second term?

Could President Obama use a second term to burnish his legacy on the climate not only to his country, but also to the planet?

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at the election night party at McCormick Place in this November 2012 file photo, in Chicago. The sudden emergence, and global prevalence of natural gas resources changes the way we should treat global treaties on CO2 reductions, Grealy writes.

The idea for this first came to me in August, but I haven't wanted to tempt fate. Hopefully everyone will be reading this on November 7.

It is in the nature of US politics that the second term is for the legacy thing:  The posterity stuff. Barack Obama is still a young man but could he use a second term to burnish his legacy not only to his country, but also to the planet?

A great opportunity presents itself updating the Kyoto Protocol. I won't go into what's wrong with Kyoto. I still have faith in scientists and if the majority of them say climate change is real, that's good enough for me. But for multiple political, economic and scientific reasons, Kyoto simply hasn't delivered any noticeable CO2 reductions. We need to kick start it again and this time around we can start from something absent in 1997: The sudden emergence, and global prevalence of natural gas resources. 

Let's turn back the clock before we go to the future. In 1997, natural gas was considered, when considered at all, as just another fossil fuel and one that was insecure and hard to find. There are still those, most especially in the UK, who either don't know about the size of shale resources, or would really rather not know. The reality of shale risks them being swept away on the shale tsunami, either domestically produced or imported from the almost bottomless bounty of North America.

The facts changed. Why do we tie ourselves to a Protocol written in another age? In 1997 coal was not only King but  the only way of keeping the lights on especially for developing economies. Natural gas was a mere noble, but one that wasn't really considered widespread enough to be of use. Today, we can see from the North American example that natural gas can do the unthinkable and replace coal. Just this week we've seen Jack Welch tell CNBC that natural gas could be bigger than the Internet.  Last week in Texas a speaker at Rice University said

This will be the redefining global phenomenon, from a finite world to a surplus world,

Daniel Yergin noted this summer that

shale gas is the most significant energy innovation in our lifetime

Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake, one not known to mince words simply said

This will be the biggest thing to hit the state of Ohio economically since maybe the plow,

Such historic events need visionaries to describe them. Which is where Barack Obama can lead others toward.

We need a Kyoto 2, based on the new reality. Obama will not lack for allies and he has one very dynamic duo to back him up: Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Another key ally, should be, could be Al Gore.  Gore has been quiet since the shale revolution hit, perhaps unwilling to be ahead of the base he played such a large part in creating. 

But even political opponents in the US Oi and Gas Industry would rally round the President. There’s no bigger shale booster than Aubrey McClendon who showed his rare international side at Copenhagen three years ago:

but it was too early

“There really has never been much debate about whether natural gas is a good fuel – its carbon light molecular structure guarantees that,” commented McClendon. “The issue has always been whether there has been enough of it to begin moving our electric generation system in the United States as well as other parts of the world away from carbon-heavy coal and oil. The major natural gas shale plays in the U.S. have made it clear we have enormous reserves of natural gas to successfully address our economic, environmental and energy issues now.”

We see now that  natural gas is almost ubiquitous. As I’ve been saying lately we don’t have a climate problem, we have a Chinese coal problem. But China gets shale. Unlike Europe, they see how shale gas changes everything.

This is how it could work:

Kyoto 2 can start out with international agreement straight out from the US, China, India, Canada, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Brazil and possibly even Russia. The only people that need to be convinced are in Europe. Europeans themselves can be convinced, but it means sweeping past the failing elites who have so much money and beliefs invested in the total decarbonisation route they fervently believe in.

That leaves the other big enemy: Coal

We will need some compensation to the coal industry. Could they be tempted with a piece of the natural gas action? Similarly, the renewables lobby could be coaxed into agreement by a process of where R+D on next generation wind, solar and storage technology is funded by the some transfer of funds far smaller than those needed to fund the present plans for an energy transformation.

This needs someone like Obama, who would win President of Earth in a landslide, to tell the good news to a planet desperate for some. That would be a legacy worth having.

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