President Obama can use his executive powers to circumvent the political deadlock in Congress and embolden the nation’s commitment to battling climate change. Instead of an “all the above” approach that ramps up fossil fuel production, we need responsible, science based energy policy. There is no future to a national energy strategy that features the unholy trinity of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), tar sands and offshore oil.
In his acceptance speech, the President said, “We want our children to live in an America that… isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” But he later stated that he will not address climate change at the expense of jobs or the economy. “[I]f the message is somehow that we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that. I won’t go for that.”
Those who understand the logical primacy of the Earth realize that it is absurd to put economic concerns ahead of planetary health. The economy and the environment are not two distinct entities; they are inextricably interdependent and fundamentally inseparable. What happens to one affects the other. The false dichotomy between the economy and the environment is based on a faulty premise that leads to poor decision-making.
In the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, President Obama spoke emphatically about the dangerous impacts of climate change and the urgent need to take action. However, lofty speeches against the backdrop of storm-ravaged coasts will not suffice.
To his credit, Obama has provided some concrete actions including ninety billion dollars of clean energy investment and several billion for efficiency. Through the EPA, he has also put forth better gas-mileage standards, and CO2 emission standards for commercial trucks and buses.
However, the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) reports that in 2008, North America, (the United States and Canada) was the second highest fossil-fuel, CO2 emitting region of the world with 1.70 billion tons of carbon in 2008.
While the latest CDIAC data indicates that the U.S. reduced their emissions by 1.8 percent in 2011, this small bit of progress is being threatened by increasing levels of fossil fuel production in North America. By 2025, U.S. production of fossil fuels is expected to rise to 11 million barrels per day.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) 2012 edition of its World Energy Outlook, North America is expected to be the global leader in fossil fuel production by 2020. The report states that this is a result of advances in drilling technology, particularly fracking and exploitation of the continent’s tar sands. The upsurge in fossil fuels will increase the continent’s GHG emissions and adversely impact investment in renewable energy. There are also a host of environmental risks associated with fracking, including the threat it poses to America’s water supply.
Obama’s environmental sins are not confined to domestic energy production. Late this year, he made two moves that have earned the ire of environmentalists. The first is the fact that the President signed a bill that exempts U.S. airlines from an E.U. carbon-reducing cap-and-trade plan.
Secondly, under Obama’s leadership, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) auctioned off 20 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico to oil companies. In total, Obama has auctioned off 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico to oil companies.
This excessive emphasis on fossil fuels is in the wrong direction and sends a counterproductive message to the world.
“This is the time for President Obama to lead our country in the fight on climate change.” The Sierra Club said, “We cannot wait any longer to take action on the climate crisis. The science is proven. From the absolute devastation families are going through in the wake of Sandy to droughts, heat waves and record temperatures across the country, the dangers of climate disruption are all too real for millions of families.”
In a November 19th New Yorker article, David Remick says that the celebration of Obama’s victory is now officially over. Now it is time to get to work on enacting meaningful policy.
“If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it,” Obama said, when he clinched the Democratic nomination in 2008, future generations will look back and say, “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
These lofty ambitions did not translate into policy that is even remotely equal to the herculean efforts required to stave off a climate catastrophe. “[T]he accumulating crisis of climate change has been treated as a third-tier issue,” Remick said. While the President’s first term was disappointing, there may be a way forward for his second term.
“Obama must now defeat an especially virulent form of magical thinking, entrenched on Capitol Hill and elsewhere: that a difficulty delayed is a difficulty allayed,” Remick explained. “Part of American exceptionalism is that, historically, this country has been the exceptional polluter and is therefore exceptionally responsible for leading the effort to heal the planet. It will be a colossal task, enlisting science, engineering, technology, regulation, legislation, and persuasion. We have seen the storms, the droughts, the costs, and the chaos; we know what lies in store if we fail to take action. The effort should begin with a sustained Presidential address to the country, perhaps from the Capitol, on Inauguration Day. It was there that John Kennedy initiated a race to the moon—meager stakes compared with the health of the planet we inhabit.”
A Grist article by David Roberts suggests that the President can secure an honorable climate legacy in his second term by using an approach proposed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Without requiring the approval of Congress, the NRDC approach is capable of reducing U.S. emissions 10 percent by 2020. In addition to reducing emissions, the NRDC plan can stimulate the economy.
As explained by Roberts, the NRDC approach is based on a 2007 Supreme Court decision regarding a provision in the Clean Air Act (CAA). This decision addresses carbon emissions that are deemed a threat to public heath.
The EPA’s fuel efficiency standards could be extended to all types of vehicles of any age. Under section 111 of the CAA, the EPA could continue its efforts to regulate stationary sources of carbon like power plants, which are responsible for 2.4 billion tons of CO2 annually or about 40 percent of total U.S. emissions.
The NRDC proposal works because it enacts standards state-by-state and using preexisting baselines. It is performance-focused, not technology-focused and although it sets a carbon-intensity goal, it contains flexibility in terms of how to meet these goals.
For political reasons President Obama may not have been able to bring to bear the full weight of his office in the struggle against climate change in his first term. We cannot afford to be patient as he begins his second term. We must demand that the President lead rather than follow.
The excessive reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable and the absence of leadership on efforts to combat climate change is unacceptable. We cannot allow the President to renege on the promise he made to our children.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.