25 Jun 2013

Obama moves to put climate change back on the US agenda

President Obama’s speech today on climate change is the furthest any US politician has ever gone to address the issue of rising greenhouse gas emissions. It will open the adminstration to the fiercest battles yet seen in the US – both legal and political – after years of environment being firmly off the political agenda.

Yet it will lead to reductions in carbon emissions nowhere near large enough to match the calls of climate scientists, nor will it bring America much closer to climate policies already making a difference in places like the EU.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

The sigificant thing about the speech is that unlike the UK’s climate change act, it calls for no new laws to curb carbon emissions. That’s because US congress is entirely divided on the need to do anything about climate change. As President Obama learned in his first term, climate change legislation like his proposed cap-and-trade bill has no chance of becoming law.

It remains the case. House speaker Republican John Boehner described Obama’s current climate aims as “absolutely crazy” – and that was before anyone knew exactly what they were.

The plan the White House has come up with is to use existing regualtory agencies to flex existing regualtory muscle to put curbs on pollution. Today President Obama called for the Environmental Protection Agency “to work expeditiously to complete carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants”. That puts the heat on America’s big coal- and gas-fired power plants generating nearly 70 per cent of its electricity.

He’s asked the EPA and other angencies to continue efforts to improve efficiency of vehicles, homes and domestic appliances, again through new minimum standards.

He’s also tasked the Department of the Interior to ease permitting for renewable energy projects – mostly wind and solar farms – on federally owned land.

The call that will probably have most resonance for the US public is to improve efforts to prepare the US for the “impacts of climate change that are already being felt across the country.” Neither Hurricane Sandy, last year’s catastrophic drought or extreme tornadoes of this spring can be directly attributable to a warming planet, but they’ve made America feel very nevous about it.

Will his efforts succeed?

By taking on “big coal”, the president is likely to have a dirty fight on his hands. Seven governors from the biggest coal-producing and -using states have already written to him calling for him not to call for curbs on emissions. While the EPA’s new mandates will probably pass in the Democrat-dominated Senate, they could be delayed for years in state legislatures and the courts. It’s possible many of emissions cutting measures the president has called for won’t happen during this, his final term in office.

They won’t do much to curb emissions on a grand scale either. The target he’s pledged to meet is a 17 per cent reduction in greenhouse gasses on 2005 levels by 2020. That’s less ambitious than exisiting European targets. US emissions have already been curbed by an essentially accidental switch from  burning coal to burning cheaper “fracked” gas.

But none of this is a reason to ignore the significance of the measures President Obama has already put in place. Fuel efficiency standards for vehicles brought in during Mr Obama’s first term in office were bitterly oposed at first but have now improved, quite painlessly, the performance of America’s gas-guzzling cars. And no-one is proposing a return to less efficient vehicles.

It’s just possible that after years of inaction today’s speech will put the USA on course to gradually improve its position as the world’s second largest polluter.

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