America has “the technological innovation and scientific imagination” to fight climate change and other environmental threats, President Obama says. But he warns that the country is not ready to abandon fossil fuels and must prepare for ecological changes to come.
As the nation celebrated Earth Day, Obama agreed to answer, in written form, ten questions from National Geographic on environmental topics. In his answers, the president insists he will take action if Congress doesn’t tackle public health threats. He also says he is offering federal assistance to California to find solutions to store more water and is trying inventive ways to combat illegal fishing of sharks, turtles, and other ocean life through international trade agreements. (Read about why Obama went to the Everglades for Earth Day.)
The questions for Obama were sent to the White House on Monday morning and the answers were returned on Wednesday night.
About the drought-stricken West, the president says he is working with California to “get additional funding” and “speed investments.” But, he adds, “at the same time, Californians need to do everything they can to save water.”
Obama also predicts this multiyear drought may be the first of many. “While no single drought event can be traced solely to climate change, the fact of the matter is with a warming climate we’re going to see more frequent and more severe droughts in the West in the future,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons my administration has been focused on helping communities prepare for the effects of climate change.”
The president is more opaque, however, when asked directly about whether Americans should expect to sacrifice everyday activities that consume fossil fuels and water. Instead, he points to how far the country has come in recent decades, and to how much progress is under way. “In just 40 years, we’ve cut air pollution by nearly 70 percent while the economy has tripled,” he says. “By the middle of the next decade, our cars will go twice as far on a gallon of gas.” He adds that reducing climate-altering gases “represents one of the greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century.”
Obama says he is optimistic that an international conference in Paris in December will set, for the first time, “ambitious, durable” requirements for countries to curb carbon dioxide emissions. But he does not address concerns that the international agreements may fall short. Nor does he say how he would deal with Clean Air Act challenges by Congress and the courts that could undermine his plans to bring down carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.
In an age when many people challenge the evidence behind vaccines and climate change, he says, science should be restored to “its rightful place. That means ensuring that science and evidence and facts are always part of the conversation when important policy decisions are made.”
Asked about his personal link to nature, Obama speaks of Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay, a cove on Oahu’s southeast coast.
“As a kid, I’d swim and snorkel and climb along the rocky outcroppings that ring the bay, all the way to a place called the ‘toilet bowl,’ a hole in the rocks that the tide would fill and empty quickly,” he says. “It eventually was closed down for being too dangerous.”
Overuse eventually damaged the reef, he says, and now the state limits public access to try to keep the beach healthy. As president, Obama takes his family there during Christmas vacation.
“It’s a good reminder of how precious this planet is, and the responsibility we have to take on to keep it that way for future generations,” he says.
Mr. President, you’ve characterized climate change as the greatest threat to the planet. Your administration has made many moves toward reducing greenhouse gases, including forging a climate pact with China. But many experts think any agreement that emerges from the upcoming UN talks in Paris will fall short. What is the outcome that you seek at the talks and what will you do to fulfill it?
We took a big step in the right direction last November when, in a joint announcement, China committed for the first time to peak its emissions and we set an ambitious and achievable 2025 target that puts us on track to a low-carbon economy. As of the end of March, countries accounting for 60 percent of carbon pollution from the energy sector had submitted or announced their post-2020 targets and are putting in place policies to curb carbon pollution.
Building on that momentum, we have an opportunity in Paris to establish, for the first time, an ambitious, durable climate regime that applies fairly to all countries, demands accountability, and deals with some other key issues. If we can do that, we’ll have a way to hold each other accountable for the goals we have set, and a framework for coming back together to set new goals and raise our ambition on regular cycles. And I’m hopeful that we can get there.
What can and should the federal government do to help California and other Western states weather the drought? What should states, consumers, industry, and farmers do—both now, and to prepare for the future? What message do you have for California, in particular?
There’s no question, California and other Western states are facing significant challenges due to drought. In fact, California is entering year four of one of the most intense droughts in the state’s history, exiting its normally rainy season with snowpack at a record low since measurements began in the 1930s and reservoirs at all-time lows. While no single drought event can be traced solely to climate change, the fact of the matter is with a warming climate we’re going to see more frequent and more severe droughts in the West in the future. That’s one of the reasons my administration has been focused on helping communities prepare for the effects of climate change.
For more than a year now, my administration has been doing everything in our power to help communities in California and across the west most impacted by drought. That includes helping farmers and ranchers through emergency loans, providing $118 million in livestock disaster assistance for producers, and $60 million supporting food banks to help the families hurting the most. We’re also working closely with the State of California to get additional funding where it’s needed and to deliver as much water as we can when it does rain and to provide better tools and information to local authorities. And at my direction, federal facilities in California have already taken steps to curb their water use and have conserved hundreds of millions of gallons of water.
We’re also working with the state to speed investments that respond to California’s long-term water challenges.
At the same time, Californians need to do everything they can to save water, and we’re starting to see some progress on that front. Everyone is in this together and we all need to be doing our part.
A large development project and a reopened mine have been proposed near the Grand Canyon, which the National Park Service says could be a threat to one of the wonders of the world. The Navajo Tribal Council will be deciding whether to go forward soon. What is your view of the projects and what should the federal government do? When it comes to parks and other lands, how does the nation balance the rights of private property owners with the needs of the public and, in this case, indigenous people?
I’ve taken my family on vacation to Grand Canyon National Park, and there’s no doubt that the Grand Canyon is one of our nation’s greatest treasures. Numerous American Indian tribes regard this icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water and irrigation. Grand Canyon National Park is also a huge economic driver, contributing over $500 million to the local economy last year alone. That’s why my administration has taken action to protect the Grand Canyon and its vital watershed by withdrawing 1 million acres from uranium and other hardrock mining.
My administration will continue to support the protection of the Grand Canyon and other special places across the country, working collaboratively with tribes, states, and local communities. I’ve protected more acres of land and water than any President in history, because I understand the importance of conservation and the role it plays in the economy.
This week marks the five-year anniversary of one of the worst oil spills in history, the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Given that, and your own concerns about climate change, tell us why the U.S. is continuing to hunt for carbon-based energy and opening up new areas, such as the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, for fossil fuel?
Five years ago, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded 50 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people were killed and 17 others were injured. The explosion also triggered the largest offshore marine spill in our nation’s history—one that lasted 87 days and released an estimated 3.19 million barrels of oil. The federal government worked with regional, state, and local agencies and communities to respond. Today, we are still very much at the center of Deepwater Horizon restoration activities, and we are committed to making sure we leave the Gulf Coast stronger than ever.
At the same time, the reality is that we will continue to rely in part on fossil fuels while we transition to a low-carbon economy. Safe and responsible development of our domestic energy resources has benefits for our economy, jobs, and enhanced global energy security. But safety remains paramount, and since the Deepwater spill my administration has taken significant steps to learn from that tragedy and make development safer, from overhauling federal oversight of offshore drilling to raising the bar on safety standards.
We’re not done yet—we’ll keep working to make more progress over the next couple of years, even as we maintain our strong commitment to clean energy. So we’re committed to a low-carbon future, but we need to have a balanced approach to getting there.
Your administration has proposed significant expansions of marine protected areas, and the U.S. has made progress in reducing overfishing. But overfishing is still a problem globally, and now ocean acidification, rising temperatures, and declining oxygen levels pose new and complex threats. What more needs to happen before the end of your administration—and into the future—to keep the oceans healthy in perpetuity?
The oceans and our coasts provide jobs, food, energy resources, ecological services, recreation, and tourism opportunities, and play critical roles in our nation's transportation, economy, and trade, as well as the global mobility of our armed forces and the maintenance of international peace and security. That’s why, five years ago, I established the first ever National Ocean Policy to provide a comprehensive framework for ensuring the long-term health, resilience, safety, and productivity of our coastal and marine ecosystems and communities.
We know that overfishing and unreported fishing are threats, which is why my administration is taking steps to improve seafood traceability and to combat black market fishing and seafood fraud. We’ve also taken a number of other steps, including creating the largest marine protected area in the world, and protecting more areas from oil and gas development. And we’ve proposed more research and capacity to respond to climate change and ocean acidification.
We’re pursuing ocean protections in our trade negotiations, too. The Asia-Pacific region is home to major markets for wildlife and wildlife products, and Trans-Pacific Partnership countries account for a quarter of global marine catch and seafood exports. As part of TPP, we’re seeking the first ever provisions to prohibit some of the most harmful fisheries subsidies as well as pioneering commitments to combat illegal fishing and encourage conservation of sharks, whales, turtles, and other threatened species.
From climate change to vaccines, many people seem to be attacking science today. Why is this happening now? What role should you and your successors play in making sure the country debates policy using science?
Attacks on science aren’t a new phenomenon. When commonly accepted ideas are challenged by new information and new insights, there will always be those who resist change. Science pushes us out of our comfort zones and changes how we look at the world, which is why it’s a foundation for progress. Science has also been central to helping us meet our greatest challenges, from economic growth to improving health care to keeping our homeland safe. So it’s up to us to keep nurturing and cultivating the curiosity and ingenuity that make discovery possible.
From day one, my administration has been working to restore science to its rightful place. That means ensuring that science and evidence and facts are always part of the conversation when important policy decisions are made. We have scientists and engineers across the federal government and in advisory positions who provide us with critical insights and knowledge.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy and my Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in my administration have been the most active and productive ever.
Putting science in its rightful place also means supporting the nation’s scientists and engineers with the funding, policies, and the tools they need to keep expanding the frontiers of knowledge and generating game-changing insights that can improve our world. As president, I’ve made this a priority.
Not a single major environmental law has been enacted by Congress during your two terms. Many of the old laws, such as the Toxic Substances Control Act and mining law, need to be updated. What do you and Congress need to do?
I am always eager to work with Congress to strengthen and improve our environmental safeguards, which play an essential role in keeping Americans safe. So wherever there are good faith bipartisan efforts under way to do that, I will engage in those efforts. But where Congress doesn’t act and my administration has the authority to make progress on important issues, from climate change to other public health threats, I will move to make progress.
Many Americans take for granted the ability to drive cars, fly in airplanes, water their lawns, use air conditioning. Given the many threats to the planet, such as climate change, are there any significant everyday activities Americans may have to curb in the future or can we keep living as we have been? Why or why not?
We cannot condemn our children to a future that is beyond their capacity to repair, especially when we have the means—the technological innovation and the scientific imagination—to begin the work of repairing it right now. We’re the most innovative, inventive economy on the planet. And tackling climate change isn’t just an economic and health imperative—it also represents one of the greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century.
Rapid advancements in clean energy, energy efficiency, and low-carbon energy technologies are creating jobs, stimulating investment, and spurring innovation—proving that there does not have to be a conflict between a sound environment and strong economic growth. Moving to a low-carbon economy is creating new industries and unlocking cleaner forms of affordable and reliable American-made energy.
In just 40 years, we’ve cut air pollution by nearly 70 percent while the economy has tripled. By the middle of the next decade, our cars will go twice as far on a gallon of gas. And we have made unprecedented investments to cut energy waste in our homes and buildings, while saving consumers billions of dollars in the process.
We’re using more clean energy than ever before. America is number one in generating electricity from wind power, and last year, we generated 20 times more electricity from sunlight than we did in 2008. Our carbon pollution has fallen by 10 percent since 2007, even as we’ve grown our economy and seen the longest streak of private-sector job growth on record.
Technology alone can’t solve these problems—we still need political will. But our innovative capacity means we can develop the tools we need to take on climate change and other environmental challenges.
Your administration has proposed using the Clean Air Act in several ways to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and natural gas production. Some rules are being challenged before the Supreme Court, and lawmakers have threatened congressional action to undermine them. How do you plan to make sure these efforts survive these and future challenges?
The Clean Air Act was passed by Congress to give EPA authority to protect the public from dangerous air pollution, which is essential to leaving our children and our grandchildren a cleaner, safer planet. My administration is taking important steps to ensure standards are in place to address pollution, including carbon pollution from power plants—the largest source of this pollution in the United States. The success of these efforts is critical to protecting the planet for future generations, and I’m confident we will succeed.
Hawaii has undergone a real transformation since you grew up and now is a hot spot for endangered species. Are there special places or endangered species that especially touch you and move you? When you were growing up, what places and experiences in nature shaped the way you look at the environment?
Hanauma Bay is one of the most special places in Hawaii, and it’s always been a very special place for me. It’s a small, beautiful cove on the southeast coast of Oahu, the island where I was born and grew up, filled with reefs and incredible marine life. As a kid, I’d swim and snorkel and climb along the rocky outcroppings that ring the bay, all the way to a place called the “toilet bowl,” a hole in the rocks that the tide would fill and empty quickly. It eventually was closed down for being too dangerous.
In fact, for a long time, the beach and bay were overused to the point where much of the reef died off. Since then, the state has taken steps to control access and educate visitors, and the wonderful people who work there today do a great job of trying to keep Hanauma Bay pristine. During Christmas, Michelle, the girls and I spend a day there, swimming and snorkeling just like I did when I was a kid. It’s a good reminder of how precious this planet is, and the responsibility we have to take on to keep it that way for future generations.
Editor's Note: This story was updated at 4:16 p.m. EDT with the president’s answer to the question about the Grand Canyon.