Obama Promises a Big Push on Climate Change

The president appears determined to confront climate change, with or without the help of Congress.


Yesterday, President Barack Obama devoted the biggest single section of his second inaugural address to the problem of climate change. He has clearly decided to make confronting climate change a central objective of his second term. In his second inaugural address the president declared, "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations." Just how will "we" respond? By pursuing the "long and sometimes difficult …path towards sustainable energy sources." The president insisted that we must do this because "we cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries." By claiming the "promise" of clean energy technologies "we will maintain our economic vitality" and "preserve our planet."

So what will the president do? Last week, Michael Brune, the executive director of the environmental lobbying group the Sierra Club urged President Obama to do an end run around a recalcitrant Congress and exercise his "full executive authority" to promulgate regulations that would cut greenhouse gas emissions by limiting the production of fossil fuels. The Sierra Club launched its first 100 days "Obama Climate and Clean Energy Legacy Campaign" with the goal of pressuring Obama to "tackle the most serious environmental crisis of our age." Given the prominence that the president gave climate change in his inaugural address, it doesn't look as though he needs much pushing.

The Sierra Club campaign demands that the Obama administration enact regulations and policies that limit fossil fuel production by ending mountaintop removal coal mining, closing public lands to further oil, natural gas, and coal production, placing new limits on the use of fracking to produce oil and natural gas, stopping the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport 1 million barrels of petroleum per day from Canada's oilsands, halting further exports of coal and natural gas, and increasing federal financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy initiatives.

University of San Diego historian Naomi Oreskes likens climate change to the World War II threat of a Nazi atomic bomb and exhorts President Obama to "move independently of Congress" to mobilize scientists in U.S. national laboratories in a Manhattan Project-like push. Among other things, the funding for "renewable energy research and development needs to be radically increased," Oreskes says. In addition, given the inconstancy of wind and solar power, more research needs to be aimed at creating new energy storage technologies. Also, social scientists can help by figuring out how to seduce Americans into conserving energy. And in case all else fails, scientists should study how to engineer technologies that could cool the climate.

On February 12, President Obama will deliver his next State of Union address to Congress. It is likely that the president will unveil his administration's climate change policies and plans then. What can we expect to hear?

Perhaps a carbon tax grand bargain is in the works. In his inaugural address, President Obama declared that policymakers and the public must jettison "outworn programs" and instead "harness new ideas" such as "revamp[ing] our tax code." One such new idea is to impose a per ton of carbon dioxide tax on fossil fuels to encourage Americans to conserve energy and switch to higher cost renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Some Republicans in Congress might be persuaded to go along with such a tax if the revenues were used to cut the payroll tax or the corporate income tax.

What about the Keystone XL pipeline? According to climatologist James Hansen, if the pipeline is built and Canada's oilsands are exploited it will be "game over for the climate." But because the pipeline crosses an international border, President Obama has broad power to reject the project if he determines that it is not in the "national interest." Last year, in order to mollify the green lobby before the election, Obama put off deciding about the pipeline despite several reviews that found its construction and operation would pose minimal risks to the environment. The State Department will issue another review this quarter. Now that alienating green voters is no longer a risk to his re-election, the president could decide to approve the pipeline, but I suspect that he will instead go with his left-leaning policy instincts and reject it.

In addition, the president will most likely have the Environmental Protection Agency impose new regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from both new and existing electric power generation plants. The Department of Energy will promulgate new regulations setting limits on energy use in a wide variety of appliances and other electrical equipment.

In his first State of the Union address to Congress in 2009, President Obama vowed, "We will invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America." Last year, in his State of the Union address, President Obama urged that the country "double-down on a clean energy industry that never has been more promising."

Given that the president declared in his inaugural speech that we need to claim the promise of clean energy technologies, we can expect that he will urge even more doubling down on "investments" in renewable and energy conservation technologies. What might doubling down amount to? Some $90 billion of federal stimulus spending was devoted to renewable energy R&D and energy conservation projects. In addition, in 2010 the federal government spent about $16 billion on renewable energy subsidies. As the president noted, the path toward sustainable energy sources has been "sometimes difficult." Some difficulties included the bankruptcies of federally subsidized firms like Solyndra, Abound Solar, Ener1, and A123 Systems. Nevertheless, the president's faith that federal energy bureaucrats are good at "picking winners" among energy "investments" seems undimmed. And never mind that creating green jobs by subsidizing renewables turns out to be mostly delusional.

Finally, President Obama committed after the United Nations Climate Change conference in Copenhagen in 2009 that the United States will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below their 2005 peak by 2020. In fact, thanks to the recession and the replacement of coal power generation with the flood of cheap natural gas released by fracking, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are already about 9 percent lower than they were in 2005. Apparently heartened by President Obama's determination to take on climate change, United Nations General-Secretary Ban Ki-Moon is vowing to press world leaders to adopt a "strong, complete and binding" accord limiting global emissions of greenhouse gases by 2015.

Whatever climate problems greenhouse gas emissions will cause, the president certainly recognizes that the challenge cannot be solved by the United States alone. However, having been burned politically by the collapse of the Copenhagen Climate Change conference in 2009 and the failure of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress in 2010, President Obama has been wary of making any legally binding commitments on climate change in international negotiations. I predict that when the 19th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change convenes in Warsaw this coming November, the Obama administration will be fully committed to hammering out a binding international treaty to limit global greenhouse gas emissions. Given the failure of the Kyoto Protocol's cap-and-trade scheme, the Obama administration may push for getting the biggest emitters, e.g., China, Japan, Russia, Brazil, and the European Union to agree to a set of harmonized carbon taxes.

Five days after the State of the Union address, environmental activists will gather on February 17th in Washington, D.C. for the Forward on Climate Rally. Organized by the Sierra Club and 350.org, the environmental lobbying groups hope to make this demonstration the "largest climate rally in history." Their goal is to "move President Obama to take immediate action on climate." The most urgent target of the rally is to persuade the president to reject the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. If President Obama does ultimately reject the pipeline, it will be a strong signal that he is determined to make cutting greenhouse gas emissions a central part of his legacy—for better or worse.