Despite heat waves, droughts, wildfires, melting ice caps and super-charged storms that dominated 2012’s headlines, the words ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ barely warranted a mention during the entire presidential campaign. In a surreal moment, one debate moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, noted that she had a question prepared ‘for all you climate change people’ but ran out of time. Hard to know if she was aware of the irony in her somewhat dismissive comment.
In a welcome about face, President Obama’s second Inaugural address and this year’s State of the Union speech prominently featured climate change and urged collective and immediate action to address it.
“We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.” – President Obama, February 12, 2013
During the Professor-Lecturing-His-Students portion of the speech last night, President Obama vowed to use the powers of the presidency to respond to the threat of climate change even if Congress failed to act.
“I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
Climate activists of all stripes and colors welcome those sentiments, as evidenced by statements/blogs/commentary from organizations as diverse and varied as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Voces Verdes and Green for All. However, this is truly a case where actions will speak louder than words. What the President threatened or promised in his speech matters less than what he and the EPA will actually do in the coming months and years to reduce climate pollution to help stabilize our climate for all people, regardless of color, class or access to resources.
President Obama spoke of important steps he was directing along the path to a clean energy economy – from cutting energy waste in half to increasing automotive fuel efficiency to expanding wind and solar power. Despite past proposals to advance costly, risky nuclear power, his failure to mention this energy option as part of his “all of the above” plan was encouraging.
While all of those are welcome positions, there is little doubt we must significantly reduce all forms of climate pollution if we are to avoid severe impacts from climate change that would occur with more than 3.6 degrees F of additional warming. If an analysis by the International Energy Agency or modeling by climate scientists are correct, the world has only about five to ten years to do an about face and implement meaningful climate policies to avoid run away warming.
The best tool the President currently has to reduce climate pollution is the 40+ year old Clean Air Act, which gives EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as they pose a risk to human health. Forthcoming rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants and low natural gas prices may help end King Coal’s long, polluting reign. But if President Obama is serious about protecting future generations from the threats of climate change, he must direct EPA to promulgate a new rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired power plants because, quite simply, that’s where the majority of climate pollution is coming from. The electric power sector accounts for 40% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and coal power makes up 81% of CO2 emissions in the electricity sector.
Another executive action which would be a tremendous step for cutting greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce emissions of black carbon, one of several short-lived and powerful climate pollutants. Curtailing these pollutants – which trap heat more powerfully than carbon dioxide but that are removed from the atmosphere more quickly – can play a vital role over the next few years in slowing the pace of climate change and its resulting impacts. Specifically, the President and his Administration should (1) leverage U.S. Clean Diesel Technology and (2) apply state-of-the-art flaring technologies to natural gas systems. The U.S. can demonstrate leadership on black carbon by advancing policies that reduce emissions from the large fleet of older diesel vehicles in the U.S. and from natural gas systems given the rapid proliferation and environmentally-risky practices associated with natural gas fracking.
It’s got to be said, though, that reductions realized through new rules and Executive Actions to reduce carbon dioxide and black carbon could be neutralized or even negated by continuing to support an outdated energy philosophy that espouses an ‘all of the above’ approach. As the self-proclaimed world leader on both economic and military matters, it is appropriate and just that the United States become a world leader in efforts to cut climate pollution, and invest in clean energy sources. Fortunately as the President of the United States, Mr. Obama has the tools and the support of America’s citizens to do so. We must all of us – old and young, wealthy and poor, minority and majority – hope that he will continue to push forward, and that his actions will soon match his words.