In his second term, Obama puts climate issues on frontburner
President Barack Obama made addressing climate change the most prominent policy vow of his second Inaugural Address, setting in motion what Democrats say will be a deliberately paced but aggressive campaign built around the use of his executive powers to sidestep congressional opposition.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said, at the start of eight full sentences on the subject, more than he devoted to any other specific area.
“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
Obama is heading into the effort having extensively studied the lessons from his first term, when he failed to win passage of comprehensive legislation to reduce emissions of the gases that cause global warming.
This time, the White House plans to avoid such a fight and instead focus on what it can do administratively. The centerpiece will be action by the Environmental Protection Agency to clamp down further on emissions from coal-burning power plants under regulations still being drafted – and likely to draw legal challenges.
That step will be supplemented by adoption of new energy efficiency standards for home appliances and buildings, a seemingly small step that can have a substantial impact by reducing demand for electricity. Those standards would echo the sharp increase in fuel economy that the administration required from automakers in the first term.
The Pentagon, one of the country’s largest energy users, is also taking strides towards cutting use and converting to renewable fuels. Those steps are being planned in conjunction with a plan to build public support and head off political opposition in a way the administration did not the last time around. But the White House has cautioned environmental activists and Democrats on Capitol Hill not to expect full-scale engagement on the issue while Congress remains tied up with matters like guns, immigration and the next round of budget showdowns.
Beyond new policies, the administration is seeking ways to capitalise on the surge of natural gas production over the past few years as a cheaper and cleaner alternative to coal, believing that both economics and the politics of the issue become easier as the president faces less opposition from coal-producing states and coal-burning utilities.
Obama’s path on global warming is a case study in his evolving sense of the limits of his power and his increased willingness to work around intense conservative opposition rather than seek engagement and compromise. It is a far cry from Obama’s 2008 pledge to heal the planet and a reflection of recalibrated strategy – and more realistic expectations – as he embarks on his second term.
Energy efficiency moves
After the legislative defeat in 2010, Obama moved forward on a number of fronts, including emissions standards on motor vehicles and financing in his stimulus bill for alternative energy. Despite the lack of any comprehensive legislation, emissions have declined roughly 10 per cent since he took office, a result both of the economic slowdown and energy efficiency moves by government and industry.
The administration is already discussing with congressional Democrats, some of whom are leery of the issue because their states are home to coal-fired power plants or produce coal, the prospect of having to head off a Republican counterattack on the new regulations. Democrats in the Senate are already girding for a battle with Republicans when Obama nominates a new EPA head. The agency, which has been excoriated by Republicans for the past several years as a job-killing bureaucracy, would take the lead in setting the new regulations.
According to estimates from the Natural Resources Defence Council, emissions from current coal-fired plants could be reduced by more than 25 per cent by 2020, yielding large health and environmental benefits at relatively low cost. Such an approach would allow Obama to fulfill his 2009 pledge to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by about 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, the group says.
“There’s a really big opportunity, perhaps bigger than most people realise,” said Dan Lashof, director of the council’s climate and clean air programme.
The regulatory push will be particularly important because Obama has little prospect of winning as much money for clean energy as he did in his first term, with Republicans now in control of the House. White House aides are preparing to rebut criticism that they heard during debate over cap-and-trade in the first term and expect to hear about new regulations: that curbing emissions would cost jobs and drive up energy costs.
Despite the renewed attention to climate change following Hurricane Sandy and new reports documenting that temperatures in the continental United States last year were the highest ever recorded, there is no sign that the politics of the issue will get any easier for Obama.
Anthony Leiserowitz, a specialist on climate change communications at Yale University, offered a different view, based on years of polling. His surveys have found that there is support for taking action to reduce global warming across party lines, including by 52 per cent of Republicans in a poll taken in September.
“Obama is not running for election again, and in a sense that frees him,” Leiserowitz said. “There are a lot of calls for him now to hold that national conversation and say to the American people, ‘We’re seeing these impacts, we’re vulnerable, we need to be taking much more significant action to prepare ourselves and reduce our risks in the future.”'