Obama’s Ambitious Plan To Reduce GHG Emissions Elicits Hope, Frightening Comparison to Kyoto Protocol

June 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

“The decisions that we make now will have a profound effect on the world that you inherit”

Just a few short hours ago, President Obama gave what was expected to be a landmark public statement, in which he outlined his plan to fight climate change and global warming. While he didn’t necessarily say anything “radical” – that is, we’re not reverting to a pre-industrial society – but he did continue his trend of boldly and matter-of-factly stating scientific truths that many other politicians – certainly no president or even most congressmen –  would usually have the guts and confidence to say. And, of course, if his plans are actually followed through on by the rest of the federal government, then we have some landmark moments – America’s first fully legislated climate action plan.

Though his speech began with some fairly typical remarks, including a framing device involving the “Whole Earth” picture (aka “The Blue Marble”) and the Apollo astronauts, and statements about increasing numbers of record “highs,” shrinking ice sheets, increasingly strong storms and rising sea level. He continued on, and spoke about Hurricane Sandy, droughts in the Midwest and Alaska, and wildfires in the American west. The statement that finally kicked his address into gear was more or less this: Americans feel the effects of climate change not just through environmental disasters, but through economic changes. Increased insurance premiums and taxes are a result of the increasing intensity of storms and of rising temperatures. Perhaps that statement isn’t a jaw-dropping first-of-its-kind statement, but it certainly tells us that Obama is looking at this problem from the right frame of reference.

Obama’s plan lays out three main ways he intends to lead this nation against climate change. First, the most obvious: Cut Carbon Emissions. Here’s where Obama hits it home though: It’s not necessarily about using less energy, or using “green” energy (though both would be nice) – It’s about using energy differently. Obama proposes once again, with perhaps his most convincing attempt yet, that natural gas should be our transition fuel, as he sees benefits in both energy independence (he notes as well that we’re building new nuclear plants and finally producing more oil than we import) and in its comparative cleanliness. He puts his full support behind Natural Gas, promising federal support to make extraction safer and more efficient. Obama’s new budget makes some bold moves to help achieve this first goal. He has asked for the removal of tax breaks for oil companies, and to continue to improve the benefits and breaks for clean/green energy companies.

Within the same goal of cutting carbon emissions, Obama tackles the omnipresent idea of using less energy –  a surefire, yet often unpopular method of reducing CO2 emissions. He reminds us that we have successfully increased fuel economy standards, including for large trucks, and will continue to do so again. In the next decade, he claims, our cars will go twice as far on a tank of gas. Perhaps the most important part of his plan to reduce energy consumption, however, is his efforts to lead at the Federal level. The Department of Defense is  updating to use multiple gigawatts of clean energy, and Obama is setting a goal that within 7 years, all federal buildings will get 20% of their energy from renewable sources. Bold, Mr. President, Bold. Combine that with new, stricter standards for appliances and lights, and we very well might have a fighting chance.

“This will not get us there overnight”

And with that comment, Mr. Obama hits the nail on the head. Step two in the president’s Climate Action Plan is to prepare America for the effects of global warming. Obama acknowledges that we can’t stop our carbon emissions in their tracks, and even if we did, there’s enough carbon buildup in the atmosphere that we would continue to feel the effects even after we’ve stopped producing greenhouse gasses. In the same vein as many authors have recently written (Skaarsgard’s Hot comes to mind), Obama makes it clear that we need to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. Plans to fortify New York Harbor, restore the Everglades,  and better preparing for droughts and floods are exactly what we need to be doing.

“We compete for business with them, but we also share a planet”

The “them” that President Obama refers to are other nations, to whom he plans for us to be a trendsetter. The third part of Obama’s plan is plain and simple to lead the world by example. He wants to push for concrete international agreements and to aid developing nations. This, however, is where I start to worry.

The beginning of Obama’s plan shows great political maturity. He’s done this before, and now he knows the best way to approach an issue like climate change. When he discusses clean energy and new standards, he makes the abundantly clear point that his will not cause any economical set backs. In fact, if it goes the same way as the examples he used – the Clean Air Act, the fight against Acid Rain, the banning of CFCs, initial changes in fuel economy standards, etc – then, he points out, we will see economic growth. “There’s no contradiction between a sound environment and secure economic growth,” he says. The “opportunity” for corporations to fight climate change “Can be an engine of growth for years to come.” Jobs, wealth, GDP – it’s all going to be fine.

So if economics aren’t going to be the downfall of Obama’s new plan, what will? Obama knows that he faces a divided congress, but he seems hopeful. Referencing the actions of Republican Presidents like Nixon, who pushed bipartisan legislation to solve some enormous environmental problems, he expressed his hope that Congress will come together, and flat-out just make his job easier. He urges Republicans to “call home” – after all, 75% of our nation’s wind power is produced in Republican districts, as does much of our Natural Gas production. But even if Republicans continue to create gridlock, Obama is prepared. Much of what he hopes to accomplish can be done without the help of Congress, who he claims is forcing the EPA, most significantly through the stalling of the appointment of Gina McCarthy as the new administrator, to “jump through hoops” because some Republicans think that “The Environmental Protection Agency has no business protecting the environment.”

Obama has also made it clear that the time for debating the legitimacy of climate change is over. Scientists (according to his data, 97%) agree that global warming is both real and worsened by humans. When Obama reviewed some of the basic facts of global warming and its effects early on in his speech, he did so without trying to convince anyone. As he later stated:  “I don’t have very much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real…We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat earth society.”  He’s ready to push forward in spite of opponents, and encourages his supporters to do the same, urging them to: “Push back on misinformation, speak up on facts.” So if the economy wont hold him back, and he’s prepared to work around gridlock and denial, where is his Achilles heel?

I return now to the third part of Obama’s plan, which, as I mentioned, concerns me.  So far, the President has proven himself to be a student of history, working the rest of his plan around the things that have derailed his, and others, environmental policy in the past. With his international aspects of the policy, however, I am forced to be less optimistic. I wholeheartedly agree with the President’s declaration of American exceptionalism, and with his call to lead the world by example, but his call for a concrete international treaty has some potentially devastating flaws.

Much of President Obama’s language regarding international cooperation – an agreement to concrete action, aiding countries that are most strongly damaged by the effects of climate change, and aiding developing nations so that might skip the “dirty” stage of development – invokes an unfortunate comparison to the failed Kyoto Protocol. While all of these goals are not only important, but in my opinion in fact the right way to go, these same suggestions were the foundation of the Kyoto Protocol. If one takes into account the complete lack of success with creating an international treaty (the very same roadblock our President seeks to overcome), its apparent that very little has improved since 2005 when the Kyoto Protocol failed. Copenhagen was only a moderate success, and Cancun followed with little of note. Only in 2011 in Durban did nations that dropped out of the Kyoto protocol, and some nations that were not subject to the Protocol but have since developed (ie. China) agree to even consider signing a “treaty-to-be-named-later.” Has anything changed that significantly that countries that couldn’t agree to the fairly lenient Kyoto Protocol are ready to be completely compliant? And what about developing nations and the global south – they’ve been promised aid for over a decade, and so far there has still been no help to industrialize, with or without fossil fuels.

The question that I pose as a result is this: How does Obama – whose diplomatic skill is more suited towards building, mending, and growing international relationships, and not so much the creation of international law – plan to lead the creation of a binding treaty, and what exactly does he intend to propose as a solution? I think it’s safe to say that the “First World” will again have the support of the Island nations, who are heavily affected and are not necessarily trying to industrialize, but how will he earn the support of the developing world, when, as previously mentioned, the global north has yet to make good on any of its environmental aid promises.

Then of course, there’s the domestic side of this international treaty. Though Obama is no Bush – that is, he won’t be echoing Bush’s infamous statement that “To control emissions of CO2 does not make sense for America” – he still faces the same problem that Clinton and Gore faced initially – getting the treaty ratified by the Senate. The Clinton administration faced Congressional gridlock for sure, but it was nothing compared to the gridlock in our modern Congress. This brings up another important question: Sure, Obama can use executive orders and various administrative departments to circumvent Congress with the domestic aspects of his plan, but there’s not the same kind of wiggle-room with international treaties. Does he hope to wait it out until a hopefully gridlock-breaking midterm election? Does he really think that he has the ability to convince his outspoken Republican opponents to see things his way? Sure, as a lame-duck, he’s got nothing to lose, but there’s a difference between taking a risk and running headfirst into a brick wall.

I look forward to seeing the changes we make domestically, and as the world’s second-largest producer of greenhouse gasses, I am ecstatic that we can begin to make some significant improvements. However, as the rest of the world, particularly China, continues on full-steam ahead, I hope that with further details of his plan, we begin to see his plans for the world as a whole. The world once thought the Kyoto Protocol would save the planet. I hope President Obama studies its failure well, because it might very well hold to key to our salvation.

Obama ended his speech on a poignant note, eliciting from his audience the same feeling that I felt just two weeks ago, when I stood at the top of Cofete, a peak on the Canary Island of Fuerteventura, looking out over the magnificent landscape that was in ultimate peril. It was there that I was reminded what it is the environmental movement stands for, and why I am myself a part of it. We are here, on the just-right planet, which had the just the perfect conditions to create life, and humans, and the beauty that is nature. As Obama said: “That’s what’s at stake.”



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