President Obama attempted to reengage on the issue of climate change with a major speech last week and a slew of new proposals designed to prove his presidency will not leave a legacy of inaction on the environment.
The speech came just days before millions of Americans suffered under an astonishing Western heat wave and nearly two dozen firefighter died battling a blaze fueled by more than 120-degree temperatures, the latest in what have been years of visceral impacts from the changes scientists say we have wrought upon the planet. Like last year’s Midwestern drought and last fall’s Superstorm Sandy, the most recent disaster have turned greater attention to a warming climate and presents an opportunity for political action.
But already a familiar pattern of partisan dissent and the consistently underwhelming resolve of the Obama administration and Democrats to make an environmental a top priority in Washington has flooded the discussion, leaving doubts about whether the United States can ever catch up to the rest of the world in becoming a climate change leader.
Speaking at Georgetown University last Tuesday, the president delivered his most extensive remarks yet dedicated solely to the topic of climate change and the need for America to take a more proactive role in crafting sustainable solutions. President Obama declared that “we need to act” in implementing policies and governmental reforms targeted to reducing the carbon emissions behind the rise in global temperatures.
“Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction,” the president said, a nod to the string of weather disasters that have killed hundreds of Americans over the last two years and generated economic pain for millions more.
Yet while he staked the legacy of his administration to curbing emissions and increasing the priority of environmental issues, the president repeated what critics have long complained are opaque proposals for change and unwavering support for the inclusion of fossil fuels in America’s energy future. Rather than raising the bar for progress on fighting climate change, the speech only managed to confirm the skepticism of many in the academic and environmental communities that this president is willing to risk the political capital necessary to pass meaningful laws to reduce emissions and other climate-related policies.
President Obama, declaring that “Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction,” announced sweeping measures on Tuesday to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and prepare the nation for a future of rising temperatures.
Embracing wholeheartedly an issue that could define his legacy but is sure to ignite new political battles with Republicans, Mr. Obama said he would use his executive powers to require reductions in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the nation’s power plants.
The carbon cuts at power plants are the centerpiece of a three-pronged climate-change plan that will also involve new federal funds to advance renewable energy technology, as well as spending to fortify cities and states against the ravages of storms and droughts aggravated by a changing climate.
The president’s comments were ambiguous: He did not specify what aspects of the project he was including or what level of climate impact he considers “significant.” Opponents and backers of the pipeline found support for their positions in his remarks.
On the broader climate challenge, however, Mr. Obama was unequivocal. Saying that science had put to rest the debate over whether human activity was responsible for warming the earth, he told an audience at Georgetown University, “The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it is too late.”
“As a president, as a father and as an American, I am here to say, we need to act,” Mr. Obama said to students and others gathered in a sunbaked quadrangle, mopping his brow with a handkerchief, as if to dramatize his point. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”
Obama’s remarks came days before much of the Western U.S. fell under a giant dome of blistering heat that produced temperatures of 130 degrees in parts of California. The heat wave was called a “once-in-a-century” event by experts, even though such spikes in the mercury have become routine in the last decade.
Besides heat-related deaths tied directly to to the remarkable temperatures, almost 20 specially trained firefighters battling a forest blaze west of Phoenix were killed when the record heat and high winds caused a virtual explosion of flame, trapping the entire crew. It was the worst single loss of lives among emergency workers and firefighters since 9/11.
No longer “once-in-a-lifetime,” unusual and rare weather disasters are becoming commonplace. The Western heat is no exception. One of the most pervasive weather-related killers, dangerous heat is going to get much worse in the coming years as climate change accelerates.
One new report from the federal Centers for Disease Control makes the case that an outbreak of heat-related deaths is already ongoing. The CDC finds that these deaths have been consistently underreported by local officials, and that the threat will get worse as summers become hotter and the higher temperatures last longer.
Think last summer was bad? You better get used to it, federal health officials warned Thursday. Climate change means hotter summers and more intense storms that could knock power out for days — and kill people.
New data on heat-related deaths suggest that public health officials have been underestimating them, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. It’s an especially important message as summers get longer and hotter due to climate change, and as storms that can cause widespread blackouts become more common and more intense.
More than 7,200 people died from excess heat from 1999 to 2009, Ethel Taylor and colleagues at the CDC found. The latest numbers, part of the CDC’s weekly report in death and illness, list non-residents for the first time, a group that includes illegal immigrants, tourists, migrant workers and others. These groups suffer especially when it gets hot, Taylor says.
The deadly nature of climate change and clear evidence that Americans are already suffering from direct and oblique consequences of a warming planet have not been enough to break through the partisan gridlock that has been the hallmark of debate over environmental issues over the past several years. Obstinate criticism by conservatives and the bipartisan business lobby have successfully scuttled everything from caps on carbon emissions to support for renewable energy projects.
Rather than creating harmony on the issue of climate change among lawmakers on Capitol Hill, President Obama’s speech has only made critics of action on global warming even more willing to launch vicious attacks on what they claim is an “anti-American” agenda.
House Republicans, largely led by the burgeoning “Tea Party” caucus, savaged the president’s generally mild proposals that environmentalists decry as too friendly to corporations and fossil fuels. Not so, say conservatives in Congress. House Speaker John Boehner labeled the proposals a “war on American energy” even as new data shows domestic energy production is at an all-time high.
Leading Republicans were using phrases like “anti-American” and “war on American energy” to describe President Obama’s new plan to combat climate change, escalating the rhetoric even before the President’s Georgetown University speech outlining his program.
“President Obama’s anti-American energy plan will increase the price of energy and hurt job creation,” Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., tweeted. Bachmann is a longtime climate change denier who has defended the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Obama plans to instruct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to limit and reduce emissions from coal-burning power plants, which are the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. As with the Romney campaign in 2012, Congressional Republicans have come to the defense of coal.
“Obama administration says we need a ‘war’ on American energy: GOP thinks energy is the gateway to prosperity,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a tweet.
Of particular concern for Republicans is the president’s call for a curb on power plant emissions that could pinch the coal industry, the dirtiest form of energy currently produced in America.
Even as market forces contribute to the decline of coal, most significantly the lower price and increased availability of natural gas, conservatives insist that the White House is behind coal’s current malaise and that more government support for the industry is needed.
Actually, domestic energy production is at an all-time high: The substitution of low-cost, low-pollution natural gas — once described as a “prince of fuels” by analyst Daniel Yergin — has cut into America’s carbon dioxide emissions. It has, however, cut into coal companies’ business. The industry is looking to use West Coast ports to export coal, mined in Wyoming and Montana, to fuel power plants in China.
But Republicans are digging in to defend coal. “It’s time we stand up for energy and American jobs: Tell President Obama to stop the war on coal,” said a Tuesday statement by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Opponents of the President have seized on a quote in the New York Times from Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment, who told the NYT it is time America wages a “war on coal.” Schrag sits on a White House advisory panel.
“Is Obama climate change agenda just cover for a ‘War on Coal’?” asked a headline on the Fox News web site. Fox serves as a megaphone for the Republican Party, and has set out to encourage climate change doubt in its news reporting.
Boehner, too, accused Obama of putting a lump of coal in the coal industry’s stocking. “282 coal plants in 32 states closing under Obama administration rules: That’s like shutting off all electricity in 11 states,” opined the House Speaker.
Actually, coal plants are shutting voluntarily. Washington State has one coal-burning power plant near the city of Centralia. Under a 2011 agreement with the state, its owner — Canadian-based Trans-Alta — will reduce emissions and phase out coal in favor of burning natural gas.
Republicans wee not content to contain their disdain for action on climate change to rhetorical assaults. Days after the president’s speech, the GOP-controlled House passed a bill that would open the doors for a massive expansion of drilling off of U.S. coasts — a sector that is currently “booming” under President Obama’s leadership.
What was innocuously named the “Offshore Energy and Jobs Act” would open nearly every inch of coastline to drilling for oil and natural gas, from the Atlantic to Alaska. What critics slammed as a “Christmas list” for the fossil fuel industry was framed by Republicans as a direct response to Obama’s proposals meant to combat climate change.
President Obama’s speech about climate change at Georgetown University on Tuesday laid out a comprehensive plan to deal with what ClimateProgress editor Joe Romm called “the moral urgency of cutting carbon pollution.” Not surprisingly, the President’s words have fallen on deaf ears on the Republican side of the aisle in the House of Representatives.
Today, less than a month after it was introduced, the House passed H.R. 2231, the Offshore Energy and Jobs Act, by a vote of 235 to 186. The bill reads like Big Oil’s Christmas list. It would open virtually all of the U.S. Atlantic coast, the Pacific coast off Southern California, and much of Alaska’s offshore space to new drilling; require the Obama administration to create a new Five-Year Plan for offshore operations; and generally perpetuate an energy agenda driven by climate deniers.
And if the bill is a Christmas list, its lead sponsor Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), is playing the role of Santa Claus. Hastings rushed the bill through the Natural Resources Committee he chairs, holding a hearing (at which I testified) just two days after introducing the bill — without giving sufficient advance notice for the Department of the Interior to even send a witness to represent the administration’s position.
The Committee website describes the legislation as “a contrast to President Obama’s no-new-drilling, no-new-jobs plan.” But the truth in this statement ends with the word “contrast.” In fact, earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal described the offshore oil and gas industry under President Obama as “booming.”
In a striking example of the national disconnect on the severity of global warming, conservatives were attacking the president’s minor tweaks to his climate and energy agenda as radical while environmental activists were outraged by what they claim is Obama’s “lack of urgency” on the issue of climate change.
Scientists and activists responded with disdain to what they say are mostly hollow proposals that have already been implemented. Critics argue that nothing the president outlined would have a meaningful impact on the man-made emissions now driving the globe’s temperature spike.
And even if the measures were substantive, there is “zero guarantee that he would follow through” following a trail of broken promises and a presidential reelection campaign in which climate change was quite literally exiled out of the race.
Environmentalists warn that President Obama’s ‘climate plan’—announced Tuesday in a speech at Georgetown University—does not contain the urgency required by the fast-spiraling crisis of global warming and climate change and that though some aspects were welcome, the overall approach falls well short of what’s needed.
The plan hinges on Obama’s claim that he plans to use his presidential powers to override a Congress under ‘partisan deadlock’ and order the Environmental Protection Agency to impose carbon emissions limits on current and new power plants.
Though many of the large green groups in the US praised the push for tighter regulation on coal plants by the EPA, critics say Obama’s plan is unclear about exactly how strict these regulations will be. As an example, the president’s plan says that the EPA must be “flexible” to states’ needs, a vague directive that critics charge provides rhetorical cover for further inaction.
Furthermore, critics charge that “new” power plant regulations are hardly groundbreaking or far-reaching enough to meet the demands of the crisis. The 2007 Clean Air Act already empowered the EPA to regulate emissions for new facilities, and yet this has done little to reign in power plant emissions, which account for approximately 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.
The president’s only new step on this front is to propose regulations for existing plants, but critics worry that an administration that has dragged its feet so far will not make the necessary headway.
“He promised today to do something, but there is zero guarantee that he will follow through,” declared Bill Snape, senior counsel to the Center for Biological Diversity. “In reality there are so many industrial sources that need to be regulated, and the administration has been moving very slowly on all of them. It is wise to not fall prey to the flowery rhetoric. You have to really specifically look at concrete action.”
Worse than doing nothing, some activists say that Obama’s “ambiguous” proposals would actually do specific and irreversible harm to the environment and efforts to turn back the worst effects of climate change.
Critics point to the president’s embrace of an “all of the above” energy policy that touts some investment in renewables like solar and wind while focusing a far greater commitment to sustaining a reliance on fossil fuels. Of particular concern is the president’s support of natural gas as a “clean” alternative to coal that also means cheap energy — thereby driving down interest in renewable energy projects.
The administration has been enthusiastic about expansion of natural gas development, especially through the highly controversial use of “fracking.” Environmental groups criticized the president for taking a “wrong path” on natural gas that will promote the growth of fracking.
President Barack Obama’s speech this week on climate change forcefully rejected some key arguments made by opponents of natural gas fracking, upsetting some environmental groups that otherwise back his climate goals.
Obama, in his address Tuesday calling for urgent action to address climate change, praised what he called “cleaner-burning natural gas” and its role in providing safe, cheap power that he said can also help reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
Regulators in many states with heavy new drilling activity say fracking, a colloquial term for hydraulic fracturing, is being done safely and is essentially similar to the hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells that have been drilled all over the nation.
The drilling boom has reduced oil and gas imports and generated billions of dollars for companies and landowners. Many scientists and environmental groups also agree with Obama’s main point: that while there are some negative effects from natural gas, burning coal is far worse for the environment and public health. There’s no dispute that natural gas burns far cleaner than coal, but its main component, methane, is a potent heat-trapping gas.
Some environmental groups advocate a total rejection of all fossil fuels and an all-out effort to switch to renewables such as wind turbines and solar panels. They also say people living close to drilling operations have suffered from too much pollution.
“When it comes to natural gas, the president is taking the wrong path,” Deb Nardone, the head of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas program, wrote in a blog post.
Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor who argues that methane leaks from drilling negate other climate benefits of gas, said in an email to The Associated Press that he is “extremely disappointed in the President’s position” and said the support for natural gas “is very likely to do more to aggravate global change than to help solve it.”
What climate scientists and activist groups are most concerned about is the president’s wavering opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, a modern centerpiece of the national environmental movement and a project that many fear could be a “tipping point” in the ability to turn back the effects of global warming.
The White House has consistently softened its position on the pipeline starting with the 2012 presidential campaign, culminating in a startlingly favorable “ultimatum” delivered by the president during his climate speech.
Faced with the prospect of making a final decision on whether Keystone will be approved, President Obama said last week that he would only green-light the pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast if a determination was made that it “would not exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
“Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest,” Obama said. “And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
“The net effects of climate impact will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project will go forward,” he added. “It is relevant.”
Fortunately for the oil industry backing the Keystone project, the government has already created its own report that says exactly that, going against most scientific research by alleging that the pipeline would only lead to a negligible increase in carbon emissions.
A State Department report released in March and sharply criticized by the scientific and environmental communities came to the conclusion that U.S. approval of Keystone would make a “small impact” on future greenhouse-gas emissions, essentially meeting President Obama’s more recent guidelines.
With the blueprint already in place, most insiders expect the president to deliver a relatively swift and authoritative approval of Keystone XL by this winter — a political boon to Democrats and likely a catastrophe for the climate.
Based on conversations with administration insiders, here’s how I envision the final act of the long-running Keystone drama playing out:
Secretary of State John Kerry, who counts combatting climate change as one of his lifelong passions, will recommend to President Obama that he should not approve the pipeline, which would send 35 million gallons of oil every day over 1,700 miles from Alberta’s carbon-heavy oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Obama will decide to approve the project, in large part because he will have secured commitments from Canada to do more to reduce its carbon emissions.
Obama will publicly repudiate Kerry, akin to how Obama publicly repudiated Lisa Jackson, his first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, two years ago when she asked the White House to let her move forward on a stronger smog standard. On the Friday before Labor Day 2011, Obama announced that he was delaying the standard because of economic concerns.
At that point in time, Jackson endured as the champion for disenchanted environmentalists.
Sometime this winter—I predict in December—Kerry will play that same role when Obama decides to approve the pipeline.
The response from pipeline proponents, especially Republicans in Congress, will be jubilation. More importantly, approval of the project can only help, not hurt, Democrats up for reelection in 2014, including Sens. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and Mark Begich in Alaska, who all support the pipeline and have more-conservative energy positions than Obama. But because the decision comes nearly a year before Election Day 2014, it will likely be old political news by the time campaigns kick into high gear.