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.
On the global scale, Obama affirmed his commitment to a concrete international plan to reduce emissions and called for an end to public financing of coal projects overseas, for “free trade” in clean energy technology and other environmental services and for bilateral negotiations with countries like Brazil and China, whose carbon footprints are steadily growing.
The stated goal for the plan is to reduce carbon emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels within seven years, a target the president set out at the beginning of his administration. Does Obama’s plan go far enough? Much of that rests on how high the EPA sets the energy sector standards. “The specific regulations that EPA will issue on power plants are the heart of the plan, and the EPA still has to go through the rule-making process,” said Daniel Lashof, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Rachel Cleetus, a climate economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, “If all these plans are implemented, we could live up to our commitment of a 17 percent reduction.”
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said that the plan could spell the end of the coal era. “When you force coal-burning utilities onto a level playing field, they can’t survive,” said Brune. “Seeking to end financing for coal plants internationally is also very important.”
However, Brune expressed concern about the emphasis on natural gas as a transitional energy source. “We feel it isn’t justified by the science, and doesn’t reflect the risk born by communities who are in these fracking zones.”
It’s important to note that many of the regulations are required by law, as they have been since the Bush administration—the question has always been how hard Obama would push.
“Today was not a day to hear novelty,” said Cleetus. “It was to hear a commitment to deliver. These power plant standards have been coming for a while now. We thought they would be done by July 2012 and here we are a year later with a draft for new plants and no plan for existing plants.”
Perhaps more striking than any feature of the plan was Obama’s embrace of climate activists, whom he noted are essential to push a climate agenda beyond the limits of his executive power. “Understand this is not just a job for politicians,” Obama said. He urged citizens to “speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings…. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.”
Obama seemed to endorse the student divestment movement near the end of his speech, telling listeners to “invest, and divest.”
“When the president was elected we had a pretty small climate movement. When you fast-forward five years later, we have a growing movement that’s getting stronger every day,” said Daniel Kessler, a spokesperson for 350.org. “Essentially the biggest piece of the puzzle is getting a movement strong enough to force Congress to pass comprehensive climate legislation that will put a price on carbon.”
If it’s too early to celebrate the president for slowing the pace of climate change, it is certainly crucial to hear him, with conviction, rejoining the national conversation about how to do so.
While Obama was giving his speech on climate change, Texas State Senator Wendy Davis was a couple hours into her almost-eleven-hour filibuster to stop a draconian anti-abortion bill from passing.