Obama 2.0 -- Now what?

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Now that the presidential election has been decided, what’s next for President Obama and climate change policy?  Given the political constraints and the continued gridlock in Congress, what can we expect in the next four years?  A discussion on Capitol Hill December 4 with Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and a panel of environmental advocates pointed to multiple options for action by the administration.

Our thanks to the media collaboration Climate Desk for the series of informative discussions they have initiated. Archived Climate Desk December 4 webcast: Can Obama – and Congress – Fix Climate Change?

Credit: NASA

Many elected officials in Washington recognize the need for action. Congressman Markey said, “If the planet goes over the climate cliff we will plunge into an abyss of impacts that we cannot reverse.  Large parts of the Greenland ice sheet will await an inevitable and inextricable thaw.  Methane buried under the Arctic tundra will seep ceaselessly into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.  We have a deadline for the fiscal cliff.  And now more and more scientists say we have similarly scarce time to avoid going over the climate cliff.”

After describing the very serious impacts of climate change experienced in the United States during 2012, Markey went on to discuss several ways the U.S. is reducing its emissions through state and federal policies that support renewable energy and efficiency.  The natural gas boom along with the rapid deployment of renewable energy has caused a shift away from carbon-intense coal to cleaner alternatives.  The fuel economy standards accelerated by EPA will push automakers to ramp up efforts to increase efficiency of their entire fleet.  The result?  While some of the other nations that are major contributors of carbon emissions are significantly increasing their emissions (China by 10 percent in 2011), the U.S. had a 2 percent reduction in 2011 according to Markey.

This near-term reduction should be applauded, but far more is needed if we are to avert the ‘climate cliff’.  “The planet is running a serious fever.  There are no emergency rooms, so we have to engage in preventative care,” Markey said.

Where to start?  Markey suggests encouraging the clean energy sector to expand, displacing more carbon pollution from U.S. electricity generation, which accounted for 2.26 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2010, or roughly 40 percent of total U.S. CO2 emissions.  Drawing on the overwhelming popularity of renewable energy among the American people, the President must harness that sentiment and turn it into effective legislation that will drive “innovation and job creation,” Markey argued.  Drawing from the success of state renewable electricity standards, Obama can support these same standards on a national level, driving a clean energy revolution that will combat climate change and create millions of jobs.  One specific proposal the Obama administration is moving forward on is the extension of the Production Tax Credit for the wind industry.

Under the authority of the Clean Air Act, the EPA has proposed technology-based standards for new electric utility plants that presumably will soon be adopted.  According to Markey, the EPA, with direction from the President, should not stop at future sources of carbon emissions, but also hold current large sources to new standards.

The EPA can also be used as a negotiation tool by the administration, Markey argued.  “The choice is very clear, between regulation and legislation,” he said. If the parties cannot reach a commonsense agreement to reduce carbon pollution then the EPA will act, and in many cases more “bluntly” than if a legislative agreement had been reached in the first place.  On the other hand, we would note, legislation and regulation need not be mutually exclusive. EPA has the statutory authority and responsibility under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Legislation could complement this regulation.

As apart of the fiscal cliff negotiations, the President should remain steadfast to his pledge to repeal fossil fuel subsidies.  Repealing subsidies for some of the most profitable corporations in the history of money would in many ways “even the playing field” for renewable energy according to Markey.  The removal of costly subsidies would result in billions in savings for American taxpayers.

President Obama during a briefing on the response to Hurricane Sandy at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Oct. 31, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Where does Hurricane Sandy fit into all this?  Markey said the damages brought up by “Superstorm Sandy” make effective framing of climate change a much easier task.  Politicians and policymakers can now communicate the real economic impacts of the storm in an effort to bring the global impacts to your doorstep and to your wallet.  Using this framing, the president can reinvigorate the national conversation on climate change as he stated he would do, and we must hold him accountable to it.

A panel comprised of environmental policy advocates included Bill Becker, Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, Vicki Arroyo, Director of the Georgetown Climate Center, and Eric Pooley, Senior Vice President at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Bill Becker of the Presidential Climate Action Project described several key climate change issues that the President can lead on, even without a “friendly” Congress.  Among his proposals, he calls for the President to wage a “war on waste,” setting benchmarks and goals for the country to reach 60 percent efficiency by 2050.  Currently the U.S. wastes roughly 86 percent of all the energy we produce due to inefficiencies, according to Becker.  “Work smarter not harder,” is the old adage that Markey and Becker and most environmentalists seem to agree on.

Reducing inefficiency and waste will reduce energy demand while maintaining economic productivity.  How do we accomplish this?  Fostering the development of new technologies and ugrading aging infrastructure provide many opportunities for bolstering energy efficiency and productivity.

Next Becker described the need to decarbonize the federal fiscal policy, i.e., policy on raising and spending revenue.  “There is reason to believe that because this tax code was created during a carbon economy, it supports a carbon economy and not a clean energy economy.  It needs to get cleaned up.  We need to start subsidizing or supporting in some way the things that make us healthy and de-subsidizing, disempowering the things that make us ill, and climate change is one of those things.”

One of the most important issues yet to be resolved is where do we go from here.  Becker would like to see the President issue a “roadmap” for our energy future.  A detailed plan of how the United States can transition from a carbon economy toward clean energy is something the country sorely needs.  This plan would encourage development of renewable energy technologies and allow them to embed themselves into the economy.  Global investors and industry leaders alike are waiting for the roadmap to be placed in their hands before they start to steer their companies down the long and complex journey toward a cleaner economy.

Like Markey, Becker suggests that the President should speak less with Congress and more with the American people, elevating the national conversation on this important issue, using his natural ability as an orator.  “Begin to educate the public and begin to nurture this upward trend we’ve seen lately in the polls of people’s acceptance of climate change as a problem and their desire of some leadership (on climate change).”  In the wake of Sandy and a summer full of unprecedented weather events, the President has an opportunity to foster public support for climate change policy that will support political change.

In addition to promoting a national renewable energy standard and calling for the President to engage in a national conversation on climate change, Vicki Arroyo of Georgetown Climate Center proposes the President push the federal agencies to use their authority to prepare for and adaptively manage the risks of climate change.  She points out the need to reinvigorate the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Taskforce and create a full-time adaptation staff under the Council on Environmental Quality.  “It's really hard to deal with a critical complex long-term problem with people who cycle through these positions,” she said.

Moreover, the President must instruct agencies like the EPA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to go above and beyond their current marching orders to ensure both the agency itself and by extension their policies reduce the risk of impacts due to climate change.  She cites the need for updated flood hazard maps for FEMA and the need for flexibility among these agencies to adapt to climate change as key issues yet to be addressed.

Eric Pooley of the Environmental Defense Fund said “the single most important opportunity here is EPA regulation of greenhouse emissions from power plants.  Proposals have been put forward from the administration for new plants, but we need to move on to existing power plants.”  Citing a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council released December 4, 2012, the EPA under the authority of the Clean Air Act should issue regulations for the existing power plants, curbing an estimated 26 percent of carbon emissions by 2020.  Pooley notes the public support for such a move by the EPA and thinks it would be a political winner.

The second most effective thing the President can and must do is to maintain the climate conversation, according to Pooley.  Without raising the issue to a national level, the public momentum swing after Sandy might just be a “blip and we will go back to (climate) silence because it's comfortable for politicians,” he says.  There is hope that further discussions will take place because in many ways the American people are ahead of their leaders on climate change.

The President must also reframe the issue around the economic impacts of climate change.  The monumental costs of Hurricane Sandy and the drought of 2012 are the perfect vehicles to reframe the issue.  Although the administration might “be a little out of practice talking about climate change,” the President can still effectively reach the American people and garner support for climate change legislation.  By weighing the costs of inaction (climate change impacts) with the costs of mitigation and adaptation, Obama can illustrate that only one scenario leads to a brighter future.

There is no longer time for delay in American politics.  We are at a new stage in public awareness on climate change and this opportunity must not be squandered.  With an effective push by the President, using the powers already at his disposal, the United States could be on the right path moving forward.  The American people are waiting for someone to take climate change on full throttle, and we hope that will be President Obama.  I want to look back at this time in American history and be able to see all that has been done to reduce climate change, instead of asking why we didn’t act effectively to avert the climate cliff.

Markey put it this way in his closing remarks and I think it resonates well: “I know ultimately that success is going to be inevitable.  Failure is not an option because we have no other planet to call home.”

See also: Obama urged by environmental groups to take on climate change in next term (Suzanne Goldenberg, Guardian, December 4)

Earlier posts:

Message to enviro groups: No more co-optation by Obama on climate change

Obama says he will elevate national climate change 'conversation'

"Obama and the Politics of Climate Science Communication"

Toward Obama second-term leadership on climate science and policy

Climate cliff overshadows fiscal cliff

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