Waves wash over a rollercoaster from a Seaside Heights, New Jersey, amusement park that fell in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Sandy. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
With sweat pooling in the lines on his face, President Obama delivered a plan of action yesterday that activists hailed as a significant commitment to fight climate change.
Obama outlined a three-tiered proposal: to cut greenhouse gas emissions, prepare for the effects of rising temperatures that are already underway and lead international climate efforts.
The heart of the plan is a highly anticipated directive to the EPA to “expeditiously” issue rules limiting the amount of carbon that new and existing coal plants may to emit. If the EPA meets its new deadlines—something the agency has consistently failed to do— it would deliver draft rules on existing plants in June 2014, and final rules a year later.
“We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and sulfur and arsenic in our air or our water, but power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free,” Obama said, noting that 40 percent of the country’s carbon pollution comes from the power sector. “That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop.”
Obama wants the nation’s greatest energy consumer to draw 20 percent of its power from renewables by 2020—and higher efficiency standards are key elements of the carbon-reduction effort. The plan includes ramping up renewable energy production on public lands and clean energy use in public housing and defense facilities. Higher mileage standards on heavy-duty trucks, buses and vans and reductions in pollution from methane and hydrofluorocarbon are also included in Obama’s proposal.
Also, Obama surprised climate activists by saying that he would approve the Keystone pipeline only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” That is already the position of the State Department’s environmental impact statement from earlier this year, and whether Obama is endorsing that logic or inviting a pushback remains to be seen.
While Obama focused on “the responsibility for keeping the planet habitable” and the economic potential of a green-energy transition in his speech, he also acknowledged that “the planet will slowly keep warming for some time to come.”
Obama’s plans for shepherding the country through the unavoidable effects of climate change include working with the healthcare industry to ready the medical system for anticipated health issues; resources to help communities and farmers cope with drought; updating flood-risk reduction standards for federally funded projects to reflect anticipated sea level rises; and helping communities strengthen their infrastructure and manage wildfires, floods and other natural disasters.