Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Obama's 4th Quarter Climate Blitz

How exciting is President Obama's new climate plan? One measure is all the excitement it is causing in Republican party circles: threats of lawsuits and non-compliance, warnings of energy shortages and higher prices, cries of 'illegal,' and even (from guess which soaring Republican presidential candidate?)  intimations of a Chinese Communist conspiracy. Clearly the plan must have some merit.

But is it really enough? The plan increases the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the utilities sector by 2% more than the previous version, a 32% reduction in all, by 2030--though this measures from 2005 levels and we're already 15% below those levels. So actually it proposes a rate of change that is rather gradual. One could compare that gradual approach with a report published today, supporting previous IPCC findings, that suggests we are far from achieving our threshold of 2C temperature increase, and can only get there by means of carbon capture technologies that do not yet exist.

The Obama plan conveniently federalizes the modes of reduction--no Big Brother showing up from Washington to tell your Governor what to do--though in the short term this admittedly clever and quintessentially American strategy opens the door to all sorts of resistance at the state level, while in the end the feds will surely need to step in anyway in the recalcitrant states. And it encourages carbon markets, which have already formed in California and New England, but are so far missing from candidate Clinton's plan, and (pace Pope Francis) will surely need to be part of the global solution. So this is a glass that is half-full but also half-empty, and any case not the big gulp the world needs.

But although the details matter, maybe the best way to look at Obama's achievement is by taking a step back. Measured against the tepid failure of carbon trading legislation in 2009, and the silence on this issue that reigned right through the first term, reelection campaign, and '3rd quarter' of Obama's presidency, his energetic espousal of the climate issue now looks seismic. Beginning with negotiations with China last fall, continuing through his diplomatic initiatives in India, Brazil, and around the world, embracing his determination to set a reasonable standard for the US INDC in Paris, and now taking on the worst elements of the coal lobby head-on, I think it's fair to say that Obama is stretching the art of the possible as far as it can go in this country, in this political climate, at this time. We could hope for more, a lot more, but I don't see how much more is possible without a new Congress, and new courts.

By calling the question in fairly bold strokes, Obama is furthermore setting the table for what will matter most: the US follow-through over the next several presidential terms, when the Paris agreements will either be met and steadily strengthened, or collapse in recrimination and catastrophe. Already the savvy Clinton campaign has figured out that climate change is a winning issue: more than 60% of voters support government action, and the entire Republican field, with one or two minor exceptions, is boxed into mindless, anti-scientific opposition. This change in public perception is of the greatest importance, as it allows Clinton (and other Democrats) to pursue intelligent policies and signals to the world that the days of US evasion may be ending. That shift in perception is a sine qua non for any meaningful agreement in Paris, and the President's actions, up and including yesterday's announcement, are making further progress possible. So happy birthday, Mr. President, welcome back to the fight, and thanks from all of us with whom you share the planet.

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