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The Equation: Obama's Climate Legacy

Fifty or a hundred years from now, the fiscal cliff, the current tensions with Russia, and many other issues that now seem pressing will be remembered dimly, if at all. What will be remembered is whether, as then-Senator Obama said in June of 2008, “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” It was an inspiring call to action then; in the wake of the droughts, the wildfires, and hurricane Sandy, it’s even more so now.

“We want our children to live in an America…that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”, The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

Since his re-election, President Obama has made it clear that he sees action on climate change as a major piece of unfinished business from his first term. In his election night victory speech, he said he wants “our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt; that isn’t weakened by inequality; that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” At a press conference the following week, the president called for “a conversation across the country about what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.” And in his New Year’s Day statement on the fiscal cliff tax agreement, he included “protecting our planet from the harmful effects of climate change” among the challenges facing the country.

Next Monday, President Obama will deliver his second inaugural address, and on February 12th, he will make his fourth State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. Americans—and people around the world—will be listening carefully for indications of how the president intends to deliver on the climate issue in his second term.

What’s needed is a comprehensive strategy that combines additional actions to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, efforts to increase the resilience of communities and ecosystems to the mounting impacts of climate change, and a sustained campaign to increase public awareness of the reality, impacts, and costs of climate change, as well as the availability of cost-effective solutions. The President and his team should pursue a synergistic, iterative approach, taking the actions they can now while seeking to transform the political climate on the issue so that even more can be done later on.

Near-Term Emissions Reductions

President Obama should continue to use his executive authority to take actions that reduce carbon pollution, building on the accomplishments of the last four years. As my colleague, David Friedman, noted last month, the standards issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) for new cars, light trucks, and commercial trucks will cut oil consumption some 2.6 million barrels per day by 2025, while saving consumers $120 billion a year and cutting global warming emissions by the equivalent of taking over 70 million typical cars and light trucks off the road for a year. In his second term, the president should go farther, by pursuing a goal of cutting U.S. oil use in half by 2030.

The president should also address the single largest source of U.S. carbon emissions—coal-fired power plants—by supporting EPA in moving forward with standards on carbon emissions from existing power plants. This will not be an easy fight, as the coal and utility lobbies will go all out to foment opposition to such standards by exaggerating their cost and impacts on electric system reliability. But the benefits to public health and the environment far exceed the costs, by as much as 15 to 1 in the case of a specific proposal unveiled last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council. And as the recent UCS “Ripe for Retirement” report documents, a substantial fraction of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal plants can be closed down while still maintaining a reliable electricity system.

While these are the two biggest initiatives in terms of emissions reductions, there are a host of other things the president and federal agencies can and should do; the Presidential Climate Action Project laid out a comprehensive agency-by-agency road map late last year.

There is also potential for legislative action this year and next on specific energy efficiency and renewable energy issues, despite the partisan divide in Congress. One interesting proposal from Senator Coons (D-DE) would allow wind, solar, biomass, and other renewable energy projects to take advantage of “master limited partnerships,” a tool that fossil fuel industries have used for decades to lower both the cost of taxation and the cost of capital. There’s also the bill introduced by Senators Shaheen (D-NH) and Portman (R-OH) in the last session of Congress, whose stated purpose was “to increase the use of energy efficiency technologies in the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors of our economy, while also fostering job creation.” Even the Chamber of Commerce supported that bill.

Thinking Big
In the last two years of his second term, President Obama could have the opportunity to do two more big things to address the climate crisis: put an economy-wide price on carbon pollution, and negotiate an ambitious and equitable long-term climate treaty that requires action by all of the major emitting countries.

Economists of all political persuasions have long supported the idea of a carbon tax—either in the context of deficit reduction or comprehensive tax reform—as a way of internalizing the costs imposed on society by carbon pollution. While there is a lively debate among economists and others over just what this “social cost of carbon” is, there is unanimity that it is not zero. A tax set at a rate of $25 per ton of carbon dioxide (which would add about 21 cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline) would generate an estimated $125 billion per year in revenues for the federal government—not enough by itself to solve the deficit, but about twice the amount raised by the recent “fiscal cliff” deal on the expiring Bush tax cuts.

Last fall, there was enough buzz about the prospects for a carbon tax—even under a potential Romney administration—that die-hard climate denialists at places like the Competitive Enterprise Institute felt compelled to launch an effort to make such a tax toxic among Republicans. Of course, given both the skepticism of many Republicans about the reality of climate change and their allergy to discussion of new revenues, this didn’t prove too difficult, and resolutions against carbon taxes were soon introduced in both the House and Senate. With prospects dimming for either a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction or comprehensive tax reform, a price on carbon doesn’t appear likely anytime soon.

But by 2015 or so, this could well change.

First, as Americans become more aware and concerned about the impacts and costs of climate change, the anti-climate-action stance taken by many Republicans (and some Democrats) will become less tenable politically. It has not gone unnoticed in Republican political circles that four of the five House Republicans targeted for defeat last November by the League of Conservation Voters’ “Flat Earth Five” campaign because of their anti-science stands on climate change went down to defeat at the polls, and the fifth survived only by the skin of his teeth. Also, Republicans like former Representative Bob Inglis are actively working to change their party’s position on the issue. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a likely candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, was acknowledging the reality of human-induced climate change well before Hurricane Sandy devastated his state.

Second, by 2015, the need to address the federal debt problem will be even more apparent than it is today; more to the point, pressure from the global financial markets could mount sufficiently for politicians of both parties to feel compelled to take action. If that happens, the need for increased revenues will be squarely on the table, and a tax on carbon pollution could be too. Of course, President Obama can’t by himself guarantee that conditions will be ripe for putting a price on carbon by the end of his presidency, but by educating Americans about the very real costs of climate change, he can help increase the odds that they will be.

The time frame for international action on climate change is somewhat more clear. At the December, 2011 climate summit in Durban, South Africa, the United States and other countries agreed to negotiate, by 2015, a climate treaty with commitments to action by all countries that would take effect by 2020. They also agreed to pursue more ambitious emissions limitation strategies between now and 2020. Leadership from President Obama and his incoming Secretary of State, John Kerry, is essential to the success of these negotiations.  This includes:

  • demonstrating that the U.S. intends to meet—or hopefully, exceed—the commitment President Obama made at the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen to reduce our emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, by moving forward on EPA power plant carbon standards and other fronts;
  • putting forward a comprehensive plan for the much deeper emissions reductions needed after 2020, and fighting for the economy-wide measures, including a price on carbon, needed to achieve those reductions;
  • pursuing ways to ramp up financial support for developing country activities to deploy clean energy technologies, preserve rainforests, and cope with the mounting impacts of climate change; and
  • helping educate Americans on why an ambitious and equitable international climate regime is essential to our future prosperity and well-being.

Using the Bully Pulpit
Finally, while recent public opinion research indicates that public awareness and concern about climate change is growing in the wake of recent extreme weather events, there is much more work to do to educate the American public about the real impacts and costs of climate change, as well as the availability of cost-effective solutions. The scientific community can and should step up its efforts on this front, as should groups like UCS.  But as the leader of the nation, President Obama has a unique ability—and responsibility—to shape the public conversation on the climate issue. A White House summit on climate change can play an important role in this regard. UCS was involved in the last such summit, led by President Clinton and Vice President Gore in July of 1997; we have offered our support to the White House for any such effort to be led by President Obama.

But much more than a summit will be needed to create the level of public awareness and urgency that will drive real action on climate change. Sustained attention is required from the president on down, as part of a focused campaign that brings the full resources of the White House, the Cabinet, and all the relevant agencies to bear on this issue. Such a campaign is essential to support the domestic and international policy actions needed to address the threat of climate change, and to counter the efforts of the fossil fuel industry and climate denialists to confuse and mislead the public on climate science, impacts, and solutions. This effort should be coordinated by a senior adviser within the White House – someone who brings knowledge and passion to bear on the issue, and who enjoys the full confidence of the president and his Cabinet needed to coordinate all the moving pieces of such a campaign.

With the seemingly endless series of upcoming showdowns over the federal budget and deficit, conflicts in many regions of the world, and other priorities such as immigration reform and reducing gun violence, President Obama has a lot on his plate as he prepares to take the oath of office for a second term. But fifty or a hundred years from now, the fiscal cliff, the current tensions with Russia, and many other issues that now seem pressing will be remembered dimly, if at all. What will be remembered is whether, as then-Senator Obama said in June of 2008, “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” It was an inspiring call to action then; in the wake of the droughts, the wildfires, and hurricane Sandy, it’s even more so now.

About the author: Alden Meyer has more than 30 years of experience on energy and climate policy. He is internationally recognized expert on U.S. and international climate policy. He also works extensively on renewable energy and electricity policy at the federal and state level. Subscribe to Alden's posts