Obama’s climate action plan: The devil is in the follow-through

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the_white_housePresident Obama has given the first major address ever given by a U.S. president to the American people focusing on the implications of global climate change and actions needed to deal with it. Breaking a more than three-year near-silence on climate change, President Obama yesterday rolled out a multifaceted climate change action plan. Now the questions become: what are the obstacles to implementing the plan, what will it take to overcome them, and what is left out of the plan that still must be addressed?

The plan is made up of steps that can be taken in the near term and, not surprisingly, falls far short of what will be needed over time to deal with the full scope and urgency of the climate change problem. Nevertheless, with follow-through on implementation, it should alter the trajectory of U.S. climate policy in a positive direction and help lay the groundwork for future action.

The long-awaited speech was a good one. Three years ago, at the National Climate Adaptation Summit in Washington, DC, I asked the President’s science and technology adviser John Holdren: “I’m wondering, when will the President really give a speech to the American people that’s about the climate change problem as such?”

Dr. Holdren replied: “I certainly expect that there will be, at some point, going forward, I can’t tell you for certain when that will be, there will be a major speech from the President that puts all this together in a very forceful way. … It’s far, far more powerful when the President is out there saying it, and he will do that.”

I’m sure neither of us expected it should take three years, but now we have it.

Video of the President’s speech on June 25 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, is here.

Of course, since that exchange in 2010 the Democrats lost their majority in the House and an obstructionist right-wing has rendered the current Congress dysfunctional, making meaningful legislative action on climate change as well as many other problems extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible. So now Obama’s plan focuses, appropriately, on executive branch action using existing authorities in order to circumvent Congress as much as possible – albeit the congressional budget and appropriations process could hinder making adequate resources available for some parts of the plan. (More on that to follow.)

The plan includes measures to reduce carbon pollution and promote clean energy, and also measures to enhance preparedness for the disruptive impacts of climate change. The plan also includes some general statements on playing an international leadership role, which, generally speaking, should be a good thing.

Full text of the President’s Climate Action Plan is here.

A summary of the plan with graphics is here.

A summary of key components of the plan is below, at the end of this post. In subsequent posts we will begin to examine these in some detail, with attention to the potential political, budgetary, and institutional impediments to following through on implementation.

But first, as has been noted by others, two significant portions of Obama’s speech are not to be found in the formal President’s Climate Action Plan. I had fully expected he would duck any discussion of the Keystone XL Canadian tar sands pipeline, which is still under consideration for a permit and will likely remain so for some months. Climate change movement progressives have developed an intense campaign, in which I have participated, that for many has made blocking the Keystone XL permit a litmus test of Obama’s seriousness on climate change. In his speech, Obama raised the issue of the pipeline and tied a prospective decision closely to the question of the pipeline’s implications for carbon emissions, i.e., he went beyond pipeline safety and various other potential impacts to say “the net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.” The relevant text of the speech:

What is true is that we can’t just drill our way out of the energy and climate challenge that we face. (Cheers, applause.) That’s not possible. I’ve put forward in the past an all-of-the-above energy strategy, but our energy strategy must be about more than just producing more oil.

And by the way, it’s certainly got to be about more than just building one pipeline. Now — (applause) — I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build the pipeline, the Keystone pipeline that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done.

But I do want to be clear. Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interests.

And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact — (applause) — the net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

That can be taken as ambiguous and I think it leaves Obama wiggle room to let the decision go either way. But the anti-Keystone campaign took it as a very good sign and will run with it politically, saying there is now only one decision the President can make that’s consistent with the message of his entire speech and climate action plan – and that decision doesn’t involve complicity with expediting the development of a massive pool of unconventional fossil fuel reserves. DeSmogBlog said (President Obama Pegs Fate of Keystone XL On Climate Change Impact; Slams Climate Denial Flat Earth Society):

It’s too bad that the president pivoted from this great point on Keystone XL to bizarre and unfortunate cheerleading of natural gas fracking. But that’s another story. 

What is clear from this moment forward is that if President Obama intends to hold true to his word, both today and in his prior climate change commitments, there is no way that he can approve Keystone XL.

There will certainly be attempts by TransCanada and the State Department to waffle and pull technical backflips to claim that Keystone XL will not increase GHG emissions. But those would be extremely awkward public relations moves, with no basis in logic or fact.
 Of course Keystone XL will increase carbon emissions. Its sole purpose for existence is to connect Canada’s filthy tar sands with export markets in Asia, Europe, and South America, leaving behind a hefty dose of pollution to impact American communities along the Gulf coast’s refinery row.
…

Something else in the speech that jumped out at me was Obama’s nod (or, rather, shout out) to the nationwide Go Fossil Free divestment campaign aimed at getting “educational and religious institutions, city and state governments, and other institutions that serve the public good” to divest from fossil fuels.

His “Invest. Divest.” exhortation was embedded in his eloquent concluding remarks to his campus audience and seemed aimed especially at the younger generation. Excerpt:

Nobody has a monopoly on what is a very hard problem, but I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm. And ultimately, we will be judged as a people, and as a society, and as a country on where we go from here. …

And someday, our children, and our children’s children, will look at us in the eye and they’ll ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world? And I want to be able to say, yes, we did. Don’t you want that? …

Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue. …

The Go Fossil Free divestment campaign is supported by 350.org, As You Sow, Energy Action Coalition, Responsible Endowments Coalition, and the Sierra Student Coalition. Jamie Henn at the campaign posted this at Go Fossil Free on the President’s remarks: PRESIDENT OBAMA: “INVEST! DIVEST!”

I like Joe Romm’s comment at Climate Progress (‘Invest, Divest’: Obama Goes Full Climate Hawk In Speech Unveiling Plan To Cut Carbon Pollution):

But for me the best part was perhaps the least expected, where he calls on young people, indeed on all Americans, to become climate hawks and create a nationwide climate movement.

Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post (On climate change, Obama bypasses Congress with ambitious plan):

Speaking to college students and environmental activists at Georgetown University, the president mocked those who disclaim any connection between human activity and climate change and suggested that curbing carbon emissions amounted to a moral obligation owed to future Americans.

“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he told the crowd, adding later, “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.” …

*    *    *

In summary, components of the plan include (more to follow on this):

Cuts Carbon Pollution in America. The plan:

•  Directs the Environmental Protection Agency to work closely with states, industry and other stakeholder to establish carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants;

•  Makes up to $8 billion in loan guarantee authority available for a wide array of advanced fossil energy and efficiency projects to support investments in innovative technologies;

•  Directs the Department of the Interior to permit enough renewables projects—like wind and solar – on public lands by 2020 to power more than 6 million homes; designates the first-ever hydropower project for priority permitting; and sets a new goal to install 100 megawatts of renewables on federally assisted housing by 2020; while maintaining the commitment to deploy renewables on military installations;

•  Expands the President’s Better Building Challenge, focusing on helping commercial, industrial, and multi-family buildings cut waste and become at least 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020;

•  Sets a goal to reduce carbon pollution by at least 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030 – more than half of the annual carbon pollution from the U.S. energy sector – through efficiency standards set over the course of the Administration for appliances and federal buildings;

•  Commits to partnering with industry and stakeholders to develop fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles to save families money at the pump and further reduce reliance on foreign oil and fuel consumption post-2018; and

•  Leverages new opportunities to reduce pollution of highly-potent greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons; directs agencies to develop a comprehensive methane strategy; and commits to protect our forests and critical landscapes.

Prepares the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change. The plan:

•  Directs agencies to support local climate-resilient investment by removing barriers or counterproductive policies and modernizing programs; and establishes a short-term task force of state, local, and tribal officials to advise on key actions the Federal government can take to help strengthen communities on the ground;

•  Pilots innovative strategies in the Hurricane Sandy-affected region to strengthen communities against future extreme weather and other climate impacts; and building on a new, consistent flood risk reduction standard established for the Sandy-affected region, agencies will update flood-risk reduction standards for all federally funded projects;

•  Launches an effort to create sustainable and resilient hospitals in the face of climate change through a public-private partnership with the healthcare industry;

•  Maintains agricultural productivity by delivering tailored, science-based knowledge to farmers, ranchers, and landowners; and helps communities prepare for drought and wildfire by launching a National Drought Resilience Partnership and by expanding and prioritizing forest- and rangeland- restoration efforts to make areas less vulnerable to catastrophic fire; and

•  Provides climate preparedness tools and information needed by state, local, and private-sector leaders through a centralized “toolkit” and a new Climate Data Initiative.

Lead International Efforts to Address Global Climate Change. The plan:

•  Commits to expand major new and existing international initiatives, including bilateral initiatives with China, India, and other major emitting countries;

•  Leads global sector public financing towards cleaner energy by calling for the end of U.S. government support for public financing of new coal-fired powers plants overseas, except for the most efficient coal technology available in the world’s poorest countries, or facilities deploying carbon capture and sequestration technologies; and

•  Strengthens global resilience to climate change by expanding government and local community planning and response capacities.

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2 Responses to Obama’s climate action plan: The devil is in the follow-through

  1. Brian Wind says:

    Yes!!!

  2. Randy Brown says:

    Mitigate-Adapt-Suffer perhaps can be viewed as the first 3 legs of the relay race during the “The Age of Stupid”. Even though the first leg was always the easiest and the second vastly more difficult to advance, the third leg lacks a just humanitarian context. It does not give the relay race what it needs to complete itself and record the results. We need an anchor called “Record”. With that last entry the fans watching will know which extinctions, plagues, genocides, wars, triage strategies and deaths to track and publish so the fans will know when to join us in the winner’s circle for the award ceremony.

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