Obama Vows to Attack Climate Change: What Will The Next Four Years Bring?

  • In his inaugural address, President Obama pledges to actively address climate change in his second term. Photo: Getty images.

In his inaugural address, President Obama promised to respond to the growing threat of climate change. With a divided Congress, what can the president actually do in the next four years to bring down the level of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases?

Mr. Obama starts his second term a week after a federal advisory committee of climate experts released a draft report that warns the US hasn’t done enough to avoid rapid increases in CO2.

The draft report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates federally sponsored climate research, says it is likely the world will lose its ability to meet "rapid emission reduction" scenarios needed to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations "within a few years."

“Climate change is already affecting the American people,” declares the opening paragraph of the report.

The report cautions that rapidly accelerating levels of CO2 are contributing to rising sea levels, more intense heat waves, storms and droughts.

In fact, in 2012 a drought  impacted 60 percent of the US and damages from super storm Sandy exceeding $50 billion. Last year was the warmest on record in the United States, which registered 90 percent of the world's insured losses from disasters.

Mr. Obama, who did not actively address climate change in his run for re-election spent a significant amount of his inaugural speech making his position clear about the need to combat global climate change.

"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms."

WHAT CAN MR. OBAMA ACCOMPLISH IN FOUR YEARS?

His climate priorities are unknown and his address failed to set out his goals, but that could come later in his State of the Union address.

A Cabinet with new leaders at the departments of State, Interior, Treasury and Defense; in U.S. EPA; and perhaps at the Energy Department  could follow Mr. Obama's lead to attack the causes of climate change.

But most political observers agree that the bulk of progress in US efforts to combat climate change will happen through regulatory actions, not legislative ones.

Mr. Obama has the power to limit greenhouse gas emissions himself, using his Supreme Court-tested executive authority under the Clean Air Act and other powers.

Back in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled if the EPA determined that greenhouse gases were a threat to human health, those emissions must be regulated by the agency under the Clean Air Act. In 2009 EPA determined that greenhouse gas emissions pose a health threat.

DEMOCRATS IN CONGRESS CEDE POWER TO THE EPA

Democratic congressional leaders are already urging Mr. Obama to use the US EPA to address climate change.

“There will be many approaches, but I’m telling you right now, EPA has the authority in the transportation sector, in the electricity sector, and the industrial sector under the Clean Air Act,” says Barbara Boxer, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., ensured during the last congressional session that no GOP-led efforts to pass legislation delaying or eliminating EPA’s climate rules can succeed. Boxer is confident Senate Democrats can beat back expected GOP efforts this Congress, too.

EPA FUTURE POWER PLANT CO2 RULE:

EPA has already proposed rules to limit the emission of carbon dioxide by new power plants to 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour, a level likely limiting the construction of future coal-fired plants. The rule is expected to be completed in April.

EPA could regulate existing industrial facilities such as coal fired power plants. Many older plants could close because they would not meet the new standard.

EPA is not likely to offer such an explosive proposal until after budget and debt-ceiling standoffs are resolved. The White House would undoubtedly like to see the economy in better shape before introducing the most restrictive regulation on the energy industry to date.

REGULATIONS IN INDUSTRY AND TRANSPORTATION SECTORS

It is less clear whether Obama will reduce emissions from other sectors, like industry and transportation.

TRADITIONAL ENERGY SECTOR RESPONDS TO MR. OBAMA’s SPEECH

Some energy companies say they think the president missed the opportunity to remind listeners that climate change is an international phenomenon which will require international solutions.

OBAMA’S FIRST TERM EFFORTS

With some arm twisting from the White House, the US Congress came close to capping carbon emissions after the House passed the "American Clean Energy and Security Act" by a narrow vote of 219-212 in June 2009, only to see it dissolve in the Senate controlled by Democrats a year later.

The Obama administration delivered the strongest increases in fuel efficiency standards for new passenger cars in decades with promises to cut carbon emissions by 6 billion metric tons by 2025.

The massive stimulus plan passed in the early days of the President’s first term contained $90 billion for green technologies. Wind, solar and other green sources of energy are in better shape now than they’ve ever been before.   

According to the Energy Information Administration, the federal government's office for energy statistics, non-hydropower renewable energy is poised to increase from 2 percent of total generation to 6.7 percent between 2010 and 2025, while hydropower -- a more traditional form of renewable energy than solar or wind -- is set to increase from 10 percent to 14 percent over the same period. That would bring renewable sources to 21% by 2025.

RECENT REPORT SAYS TIME IS RUNNING OUT FOR CLIMATE CHANGE ACTION 

“Climate change is already affecting the American people,” declares the opening paragraph of the report, issued under the auspices of the Global Change Research Program.

“Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts.

“Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and Arctic sea ice are melting. These changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity.”

When it is final, this report will be an official document of the United States government.

The public comment period for the report will run through April 12, 2013.