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Anticipating President Obama: A U.S. Climate Action Plan?

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 3:34 PM GMT on June 25, 2013

Anticipating President Obama: A U.S. Climate Action Plan?

Today President Obama is planning a major speech that will reintroduce climate change as a spoken-of issue into U.S. politics. There has been a lot of pre-speech publicity, for example Youtube and the speech will be broadcast live, currently scheduled at 1:55 PM Eastern. There has already been some information released including The President’s Climate Action Plan and a shorter Fact Sheet.

I will take The President’s Climate Action Plan as a logical outline for the speech. There are three major bullets in the outline:

Cut Carbon Pollution in America

Prepare the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change

Lead International Efforts to Combat Global Climate Change and Prepare for its Impacts

The outline covers mitigation, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and adaptation, anticipating and responding to the impacts of climate change. Looking more deeply into the plan, President Obama is resetting some of the political battles that have proved and will be most contentious, for example, reduction of subsidies for fossil fuels (conservative support), and public sector financing of clean energy. This will queue up the issues of the Keystone Pipeline, which will remain a complex and difficult decision for the near future. The Keystone Pipeline will be viewed as a measure of the seriousness of Administration’s commitment.

Prior to the speech, I think the most important aspect of the speech is re-introducing the language of climate change into the political process (earlier blog on language barriers). To continue to avoid the words climate, climate change and adaptation is damaging to our country’s credibility, economic well being, technological development, our environment and our future. If we do not take a leadership position, I suspect that by 2020 we will be put into a distinct policy disadvantage as emerging use of renewables in other large economies become both economical and influential in the development of trade policy. We are living in a world where the words “climate” and “climate change” are scrubbed from documents and legislative targets in disruptive and destructive ongoing political tribalism. Though a single speech will not end this tribalism, it will start to break down the language barriers, especially as the impacts of weather, climate, climate variability and climate change become more apparent to more and more people.

The last long piece I wrote on policy was just prior to the 2012 election. I reproduce some of this below in anticipation of examining the speech after it is delivered.

Excerpts from Election eve: Climate Science and the 2012 Election – Redux (2)

Originally posted November 4, 2012

Climate change was thrown prominently into the headlines, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City endorsed President Obama, citing at the top of the list Hurricane Sandy and the need to address climate change. Though to my knowledge New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has not made any recent statements about climate change, his tour of the hurricane damage with President Obama has ignited a number of anti-climate change pieces and suggestions that the governor has strayed from the conservative mantra. Hurricane Sandy has put climate change into the headlines, and perhaps made it a small issue for the election, but it is not back as a substantive political issue.

If we look back over the past 4 years, then there are a couple of moments when climate change did appear overtly on the political agenda. Most prominently was in 2009 when the House or Representatives passed the Waxman-Markey, American Clean Energy and Security Act. (my blog at the time) The bill did not go very far in the political process. It was part of the run up to the 2009 United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen. The other significant policy posturing prior to COP15 was U.S. EPA’s decision to regulate carbon dioxide. The threat of regulation is often a policy motivator in the U.S. Ultimately; however, any EPA action was burdened by strong bipartisan opposition to any action that would imperil the role of fossil fuels in the economic recovery.

After COP15 I felt that the U.S. had lost any leadership potential that it might have had on the global stage of climate policy. I also felt that we were squandering technological and economic advantage. I made a prediction prior to COP15: “I imagine that the machinations of legislation and lobbying will push climate change legislation close enough to the mid-term election that it will languish next to health care and Afghanistan and the economy. I think that there will be climate legislation, but I bet that it will be early in year 4 of the Obama administration, with its passage dependent on what Obama’s re-election looks like.”

So that prediction was wrong. What I did not anticipate was the sweeping change in the mid-term election that amplified the political attack on climate change, as well as an attack in general on the use of scientific information in policy and regulation. This attack on the use of knowledge in policy, which is complemented by assaults on very small parts of the U.S. federal budget in the name of budget cutting, only amplifies my concern that the U.S. is placing itself at technological, economic, and, now, research disadvantage. I would insert into the argument about, for instance, the bankruptcy of Solyndra, that our unstable policy on technological investment delayed U.S. development while foreign competitors built effective and market-friendly alternatives. We simply came to the game too late. The fragmented, up and down nature of both energy and climate policy hurt us everyday. For example, we are currently enamored of cheap natural gas and its potential to revitalize industry. This is a great local and short-term benefit. As far as climate policy, it does not serve as convincing reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, there are other environmental challenges with the acquisition of natural gas that will emerge rapidly in the next few years. Therefore, as far as energy policy, it is only short-term opportunism.

Despite the flurry of chatter of climate change as an issue that has followed Superstorm (nee Hurricane) Sandy, it is difficult to look across such a close election and see climate change emerging as a substantive issue on a national scale. To make progress on this issue requires support in the Legislative Branch. I expect that tribal partisanship will continue, and I hope that we spend our first quota of bipartisan behavior on stabilizing the federal budget, dealing with political-economic sequestration, and reconciling continuing resolutions. Thinking about voting, more than climate change in particular, the continued assault on science and the use of science-derived knowledge is, fundamentally, part of the threat to our thriving. This notion of American Exceptionalism takes on the hollow boosterism of Dust Bowl towns, which looked knowledge in the eyes and denied its existence. The world is changing in ways that we do not control, and it will not be good if we are the ones reliant on burning stuff for our way of life.


Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.