In refusing to acknowledge his past climate denial and promotion of oil interests, Obama is relying on liberals forgetting his actual environmental record. Worse, he’s telling other Democratic leaders that lip service can stand in for action.

Barack Obama speaks at an oil and gas production field on federal lands near Maljamar, New Mexico, on March 21, 2012. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

This summer has been the hottest ever recorded. Global fossil fuel consumption hit an all-time high last year, continuing to exacerbate the climate crisis.

Against this backdrop, former president Barack Obama and his top White House strategist David Axelrod have been publicly lamenting climate inaction and warning of the imperative to fight climate change — pretending that they are powerless bystanders who played no part in creating the escalating crisis.

In fact, the opposite is true: when they were in a position to limit future damage from climate change, they chose not to prioritize climate policy and instead expanded fossil fuel production — all while Obama and Democrats were rewarded with a gusher of campaign cash from the oil and gas industry.

“That was me, people,” Obama bragged in 2018 to a Texas audience about the unprecedented fossil fuel production boom that he engineered and promoted during a presidency that was guided early on by Axelrod — who reportedly urged the White House to steer clear of tough fights over climate policy.

Obama and Axelrod’s more recent rhetoric is designed to memory-hole their culpability in the climate crisis as it now scorches the planet. Their sentimental interviews, documentaries, and tweets discussing the need for climate action — all without contrition for their past climate denial — may help launder their images, but the behavior stands in the way of a component necessary to help the United States meet its climate commitments: accountability.

In refusing to acknowledge their past climate denial, Obama and Axelrod are relying on liberals forgetting what actually happened in the recent past (not an altogether risky bet). Worse, they’re telling every other Democratic leader that lip service can still stand in for action.

Their bait and switch paved the way for what we saw this week: Democratic president Joe Biden giving a speech calling climate change an “existential threat,” all while he refuses to declare a climate emergency, accelerates drilling faster than former president Donald Trump, and backs a Supreme Court ruling advancing a massive fossil fuel pipeline.

Obama and Axelrod, if they cared, could change this destructive dynamic — by admitting the role their policies played in creating the crisis, and using their huge platforms and influence to press Biden and other Democratic politicians to take more aggressive action to meet the Paris Agreement that Obama himself negotiated with no enforcement mechanisms — and that consequently the United States is far from fulfilling.

“We’re Going to Keep on Encouraging Oil Development”

On July 6, the world experienced its hottest day ever recorded. That same day, Obama tweeted a video from an interview he had just given to comedian Hasan Minhaj in which he spoke about the hopelessness faced by younger generations about the climate crisis.

“Malia comes to me,” says the former president about his twenty-four-year-old daughter, with a serious look on his face. “She says, ‘All our friends, sometimes we talk about climate change and we just feel like there is no way we’re going to be able to solve this. . . . A lot of my friends, they just feel as if, what’s the point?’”

According to Obama, this is how he replied: “We may not be able to cap temperature rise to two degrees centigrade. But here’s the thing. If we work really hard, we may be able to cap it at two and a half instead of three. Or three instead of three and a half. That extra centigrade, that might mean the difference between whether Bangladesh is under water. It might make the difference as to whether one hundred million people have to migrate or only a few.”

Left unsaid in the interview is that Obama squandered numerous opportunities to tackle rising temperatures, and even bragged about overseeing the largest expansion of fossil fuel production in US history.

In March of 2012, Obama gave a speech in Cushing, Oklahoma in which he touted “what we’re calling an all-of-the-above energy strategy.”

That month, more than fifteen thousand warm temperature records were broken in the United States, making it the hottest March ever recorded — developments that were likely exacerbated by climate change.

He told the crowd, “Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. . . . We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline [sic] to encircle the Earth and then some.”

Obama went on: “As long as I’m president, we’re going to keep on encouraging oil development and infrastructure, and we’re going to do it in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people. We don’t have to choose between one or the other, we can do both.”

That summer, Arctic sea ice hit a record low, and in the fall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report finding that Earth was on track to warm by four degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The report warned of “the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.”

Obama received $1.1 million in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry during his 2012 reelection campaign.

In 2015, Obama declared that there was “no greater threat” than climate change. Later that year, he signed legislation lifting the forty-year ban on crude oil exports, a key priority for Republicans and the fossil fuel industry, increasing fossil fuel exports by more than 750 percent in the first five years after it was lifted.

As president, Obama oversaw an 88 percent increase in total oil production.

“You wouldn’t always know it, but [oil production] went up every year I was president,” said Obama at a 2018 fundraiser for a think tank at Rice University in Texas. “Suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer and the biggest gas — that was me, people.”

“Not Particularly Committed”

“We were warned and warned and, for decades, the world shrugged,” tweeted David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and the chief strategist for both of his presidential campaigns, on July 21. “Skeptics dismissed science. Now the effects of climate change are inescapably clear.”

Two days later, Axelrod tweeted, “For decades, we dithered and ignored the warnings and the science. Now we’re paying the price. Yet some STILL promise to roll back common sense measures necessary to TRY and prevent today’s disaster from becoming tomorrow’s irreversible catastrophe.”

Just a few weeks earlier, Axelrod had told the New York Times that including the natural gas Mountain Valley Pipeline in the recent debt ceiling deal to please coal baron Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, was a necessary compromise.

The pipeline project would carry fracked gas from West Virginia to Virginia, across steep terrain in the Appalachian Mountains, including more than two hundred miles with “high landslide susceptibility.” Opponents say that the new pipeline would cause emissions equivalent to twenty-six new coal-fired power plants.

When Obama was president, news reports suggested that Axelrod helped steer the administration away from climate action.

In 2010, a New Yorker story on the failure of Obama’s signature climate policy, a cap-and-trade plan that would have capped greenhouse gas emissions while allowing corporations to trade pollution credits, reported that “Axelrod, though influential, was not particularly committed” to the climate legislation.

According to the story, after passing the Affordable Care Act health care law in 2010, Axelrod and other senior White House advisors warned that “being closely associated with the messiness of congressional horse-trading was destroying Obama’s reputation” and did not want to pick another big fight over cap-and-trade.

In 2012, the Atlantic published a report suggesting that Axelrod had shut down any talk of climate change during Obama’s reelection campaign.

Neither Obama nor Axelrod responded to a request for comment.

You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.

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