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Reaction to President Obama’s Speech: A U.S. Climate Action Plan?

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 9:38 PM GMT on June 25, 2013

Reaction to President Obama’s Speech: A U.S. Climate Action Plan?

Here are my reaction and initial analysis of President Obama’s Speech on Climate Change (June 25, 2013). Also below are the post I made before the speech and a previous 2012 blog on Obama’s policy actions on climate change. (Just for comparison 2009 Obama Speech on Climate Change)

The president pulled together many of the challenges of climate change into the most unified position statement on climate change I have seen on the national level. He invoked the Clean Air Act and its bipartisan history as well as relying on statements about the legacy that one generation leaves for the next. He pointed out environmental actions by Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush and John McCain. He even took climate change back to the Founding Fathers with a call for acting as caretakers of the future. (It’s like he has been sitting in on my class. Perhaps, he’s one of the people leaving comments on the blog? Come forth!)

A thread throughout the speech was carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Carbon dioxide was legally affirmed as a pollutant by the April 2, 2007, decision by the Supreme Court (at climatepolicy.org). This ruling provided a path to start dealing with climate change through regulatory means. Since the 2007 ruling, efforts to have the Environmental Protection Agency regulate carbon dioxide have waxed and waned. There have been pushes at times, always stymied by bipartisan concerns about damaging the recovering economy.

Obama made the point that the tension between the economy and the environment in general is not always a matter where it comes at the detriment of the economy. Again, he made numerous references to past policy and regulation decisions, for example, on acid rain, and pointed out that they did not lead to the demise of industry, commerce and the economy. Obama advocated the ability of American business to innovate and expose opportunity. Going further, he noted that a number of major businesses have declared climate change one of America’s greatest economic opportunities. This line of argument reveals the normally exploited environment-economy tradeoff as too simplistic, if not fundamentally spurious. Obama injected the welfare of our children into the environment-economic tradeoff.

With regard to concrete action, the most direct target to reduce carbon dioxide emissions was power plants. Power plants, notably coal-fired power plants, are the source of about 40 percent of current U.S. emissions. Many other power-plant pollutants are regulated, for example, mercury and sulfur. Power plants are relatively easy to target because they don’t move around like cars and trucks. Regulation of power plants is already occurring in some states and regions, and Obama framed this point as the federal government catching up.

Our move to natural gas was counted as a success and posed as a bridge between today’s coal and oil and future carbon-free energy sources. The need for an integrated energy policy was implied, with Obama noting that energy policy was greater than drilling for oil and and a single pipeline crossing the U.S. from Canada. Queuing up the Keystone Pipeline decision, Obama stated that the pipeline had to be in our national interest and cannot significantly enhance carbon pollution.

With regard to renewable energy, Obama emphasized wind energy. Wind energy is taking root in both politically liberal and conservative parts of the U.S. and through its local economic presence, gaining bipartisan support. He also emphasized the need to become players with Germany and China, both of which are investing heavily in renewables. This German and Chinese investment is my reason for speculating that if we don’t play in this field we will be left at economic and policy disadvantage by 2020. The president committed the government to having 20 percent of its energy from renewables. He pointed out the aggressive efforts of the Department of Defense to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to climate change.

With regard to what is happening now, Obama talked about how states are already responding to climate-related challenges and, therefore, are building responses to climate change. There is climate change that we cannot avoid, and globally, our emissions are on an upward trajectory. He specifically noted that Miami is trying to mitigate salt-water intrusion and that the Texas Water Development Board is developing strategies for dealing with extended and extreme drought. Obama also talked about rebuilding of the New York City coastline with smarter, more resilient infrastructure.

As the final leg in the proposed action plan, Obama committed to increasing the nation’s presence in international efforts to address climate change. He lauded the climate benefits of U.S.-China agreement to reduce hydrochlorofluorocarbons, alarmingly powerful greenhouse gases. He challenged the old argument that less developed countries would for some reason have to evolve through the same phases of energy use and pollution as the developed countries, calling for free trade in environmental technologies to leap past that historical polluting phase of development. He called for ambitious, inclusive and flexible approaches to addressing greenhouse gas emissions.

What was missing from the speech? We have to get a handle on agriculture and its role in climate change. It’s even more complex than greenhouse gas emissions – land-use, livestock, deforestation and emissions. And a more subtle issue, which will be relevant to Keystone Pipeline decision. If we sell our coal and facilitate the use of tar sands, are we exporting emissions? How will this national jobs issue play with the The President’s Climate Action Plan?

I expect that many will label the speech as too pragmatic, without the dramatic flare than the global warming might warrant. During the speech, one of my former students wrote me that it was amazing to hear a U.S. president talking about climate adaptation. In my earlier blog today, I wrote about language. My student’s amazement reflects the power of language. In 2007 adaptation was essentially a forbidden word in government circles; it had been for many years. I do not want to diminish or exaggerate the potential of this speech to bring climate change back into the political quagmire. The speech pulls together the climate change problem better than it has ever been pulled together at the national level, and these words of climate change, global warming, adaptation, mitigation, resilience, etc. have to be in our vocabulary if we are to take a responsible position on a sustainable future. What matters after a speech like this is follow up – the hard management that leads to real action and the initiation of policies and programs to make our response to climate change as unified as the problem is stated in Obama’s speech.

Published earlier on June 25, 2013:

Anticipating President Obama Speech: 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, 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.

Before the speech, I expect its most important aspect will be reintroducing 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 becomes 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 they are the legislative targets in the 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 hurts us every day. 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.