10 ways Barack Obama can address climate change

By Ed King

President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address lasted just under 20 minutes, but  for many two words stood out – climate change.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said.

For placing this particular issue back on the agenda Obama won praise around the world – that’s the easy bit done and dusted.

But as he rocks back in his chair in the Oval office, and sees a growing ‘to do’ list including economic growth, fiscal deficit, Syria, gun control and a Republican dominated Congress – the question how may spring to mind.

Below are 10 ways President Obama can make his mark as a POTUS who really did take action to prevent catastrophic global warming.

1 – Regulate don’t legislate   

With Congress in Republican hands until 2014, the scope for new climate legislation is limited. But does Obama need it?

His authority under the Clean Air Act means the federal administration has a wide range of powers at its disposal. Two landmark Supreme Court rulings, in 2007 and 2011, established that it gives the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to regulate greenhouse gases.

Instead of wasting political capital he can focus on the increasingly effective regulations on energy efficiency from manufacturing and power plant emissions the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to push through this year.

In 2011 a new set of vehicle economy standards were introduced by the EPA. These could double the efficiency of cars; the next challenge is to roll this out for larger vehicles and trucks.

Lisa Jackson, who has been an effective promoter of carbon emissions measures, will soon leave as EPA Administrator. Who Obama picks as her successor will be a good indicator of how seriously he intends to use the EPA to drive emissions down.

2 – Lead by example

In 2010 Obama announced the Federal Government would reduce its own emissions 28% by 2020 – it could take this a step further by requiring all suppliers and companies it outsources work to, to make similar efforts.

Obama could build on his pledge to reduce domestic emissions by adopting a price for CO2 for all departments and agencies. $20 per tonne has been suggested as an effective price (see Chapter 5 – Environment).

This could allow the government to meet its targets in a cost effective manner, and also demonstrate how a carbon price or tax could work.

The White House tweeted this picture of Barack Obama and his children during his speech

3 – No more war

The current US administration does not appear to have the same desire to reconquer the planet as its predecessor demonstrated – which is good news for the climate.

One estimate suggested seven years of war in Iraq released up to 600 million tonnes of Co2 – that’s just over a quarter of the UK’s annual output.

Jets, helicopters, tanks and all those long supply lines require huge levels of energy – making the Pentagon the world’s largest single consumer of oil.

On the flip side, it’s worth recognising that last year the US did trial it’s ‘Great Green Fleet’, which chugged along partly fuelled by ethanol, while many outlying bases in Afghanistan were powered by solar energy.

4 – Keep coal in the ground

The shale gas revolution has cut the USA’s emissions, but it has done little for global figures. That’s because the country’s vast coal supplies (the largest in the world) are still being shipped around the world.

This is a politically sensitive subject, given the persistent ‘War on Coal’ campaign waged by Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe – but it is clearly disingenuous to claim your own emissions are collapsing when you are exporting huge quantities of CO2 abroad.

One step he could take is to ban mountaintop removal mining, a cheap but environmentally catastrophic method of exploiting coal seams that has been linked with birth defects.

If the coal industry has to internalise *all* of its costs, it may find those profits falling fast.

5 – Support clean tech R&D

This is one area that is looking promising. The President has already won one battle this year – preserving a wind energy tax credit for another 12 months.

In addition, the proposed 2013 budget increases R&D funding at the Department of Energy by 7%, focusing in particular on energy storage, solar power generation and bio-based alternatives to petroleum.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 provided a stimulus of $90 billion in government support and tax incentives for renewables, energy efficiency and clean tech investment.

Finance doesn’t always equal success.

After soaking $535 million worth of loan guarantees from the administration, solar company Solyndra flopped, but on the flip side overall investment in wind and solar rose rose 31% to $246 billion in 2011.

6 – Back US scientists

The USA is home to some of the world’s most respected climate scientists and institutions.

But for the last decade the likes of Michael Mann and Katherine Hayhoe have been at the receiving end of a series of calculated and vicious attacks, many aimed at forcing them to quit their work.

With the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report planned for later this year, the President will have a great opportunity to publicly thank these institutions for their work.

He should take it.

7 – International efforts

The USA has often regarded the international global climate talks as little more than an irritant. In the lead up to 2015 it has an opportunity to change that perception.

Deputy climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing, often regarded as a key antagonist at the talks, recently quit his post – and there are rumours climate chief Todd Stern may follow. This may help.

In particular the US needs to make overtures to China inside and outside of the UN forum – between them these two countries are responsible for over 50% of global emissions, and no deal will be able to work without their involvement.

Movement on the ‘loss and damage‘ element of the talks could also help. The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy put the levels of climate finance on offer in stark relief. The estimated repair bill for the US east coast is $60 billion – so is $100 billion for the rest of the world really too much to ask?

AUDIO: Former UNFCCC chief Michael Zammit Cutajar explains why climate talks hinge on USA & China

8 – Keep talking about climate change

As the most powerful man on the planet, Obama is in the great position of being able to make headlines with whatever he says – this speech being an example.

In addition to the White House bully pulpit, suggestions the administration could host a high level climate finance summit in 2013 should be welcomed.

Equally, having recruited John Kerry as his Secretary of State, he has a hugely progressive climate champion to take this message to all corners of the planet.

His appointment clearly signals a more activist role by the US in climate diplomacy though it is not at all clear what substantive difference that will make to US policy.

9 – Keystone XL

This is Obama’s first major test.

The easy (and perhaps politically astute) choice would be to allow the 1,200 mile $7 billion pipeline to be built, provided it meets various environmental standards in its journey through the USA. Given exploiting the tar sands releases 20-35% more Co2 than traditional drilling – it is a massive issue.

Reports in the Guardian today suggest he has ducked the issue for now, putting off a decision until April.

If his administration wants to send a clear message that it is deadly serious about climate change, he’ll stop Keystone dead in its tracks.

10 – Make the economic case

Perhaps the only way he can generate huge support for the transition to a low carbon economy is to stress the benefits in terms of jobs, growth and resilience.

McKinsey estimates the US could reduce annual non-transportation energy consumption by 23% by 2020, eliminating more than $1.2 trillion in waste — well beyond the $520 billion upfront investment required.

The wind industry says it can create 500,000 new jobs in the coming two decades. The solar industry report that 52,000 residential rooftop systems were installed in the US in 2011, up 30%.

And here’s a mind-blowing stat from Bloomberg: “100 million U.S. residential units could physically hold rooftop systems one day, generating by one estimate 3.75 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity a year. In 2011, total U.S. electrical generation from all sources was about 4 trillion kilowatt hours—42% of that from coal.”

How hard can it be?

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