This afternoon, in a speech delivered at Georgetown University, President Obama laid out his executive plan to fight climate change.
Referencing his State of the Union promise to act on climate change, he said, "I pledged that America would respond to the growing threat of climate change, for the sake of our children and future generations."
President Obama reminded us that "climate change is no longer a distant threat -- we are already feeling its impacts across the country and the world. Last year was the warmest year ever in the contiguous United States.... The 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15 years. Asthma rates have doubled in the past 30 years.... And increasing floods, heat waves, and droughts have put farmers out of business, which is already raising food prices dramatically."
"These changes come with far-reaching consequences and real economic costs," he continued, "Last year alone, there were 11 different weather and climate disaster events with estimated losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States. Taken together, these 11 events resulted in over $110 billion in estimated damages, which would make it the second-costliest year on record."
President Obama's Climate Action Plan aims 1. to reduce carbon emissions; 2. to prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change; and 3. to lead international efforts to fight climate change and prepare for its impacts.
Bill McKibben, 350.og co-founder, responded to the talk positively, stating: "It's awfully good to see the president starting to move forward on climate action -- after the hottest year in American history, it's appropriate that the White House would move to act. And the solutions agenda they've begun to advance moves the country in a sane direction."
Environmentalists welcomed the call to rein in emissions from existing power plants by using laws already on the books, such as the Clean Air Act. They have been pushing the administration to establish emissions limits for new coal-fired power plants, which have not been finalized.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), electricity produced by existing power plants accounts for a third of US greenhouse gas emissions. (Transportation and industry come in a close second and third.)
Of the four gases responsible for climate change -- carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases -- carbon dioxide ranks highest, producing 84% of greenhouse gases. (The climate action plan also aims to reduce the other greenhouse gas emissions.)
Coal power plants currently still generate most of our electricity, about 37% in 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (closely followed by natural gas at 30%). And coal power plants emit the highest levels of carbon dioxide, at 40%.
For these reasons, limits on carbon emissions for existing and new coal-fired power plants have been a key target of the campaigns of environmental groups and activists, and are now at the top of President Obama's agenda. He is directing the EPA to complete the standards, setting a deadline of September 20 for new power plans and June 2014 for existing power plants.
Coal shares plunged on Monday ahead of Obama's speech, in a sign of anticipation.
President Obama also stated he would seek to cut carbon by improving energy efficiency in businesses, industries and industrial equipment, as well as for homes and appliances. Specifically, he seeks buildings -- commercial, industrial and personal -- to become 20% more energy efficient by 2020 through the Better Building Challenge. He seeks to reduce carbon emission by 3 billion metric tons by 2030 through efficiency standards for federal buildings and appliances.
Additionally, President Obama aims to reduce carbon emissions by directing the Department of Interior to permit renewable energy production -- like solar and wind -- on publicly owned lands, by designating the Red Rock Hydroelectric Plant on the Des Moines River for priority permitting, and by maintaining the military's commitment to renewable energy.
Overall, the Obama administration aims to have the federal government consume 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
In his talk, he mentioned that the use of renewable energy has doubled under his administration. He added that wind energy has increased by 75% -- in Republican districts.
The plan also calls for preserving forests and reforestation to help mitigate climate change.
The Climate Action Plan outlined steps to be taken to help the U.S. prepare for the (already occurring) impacts of climate change. These effects include rising sea levels and coastal flooding; drought, with Texas currently in a state of emergency as a result; increased number and intensity of wildfires, witness Colorado earlier this month; and future floods.
The plan directs agencies to support local climate resilient investment. For example, it will pilot innovative strategies in the Hurricane Sandy-affected region to strengthen communities against future extreme weather. It also calls for measures to be taken to ensure that hospitals are sustainable and resilient, that agricultural sustainability is maintained, that drought is managed, and that wildfires are reduced.
Lastly, President Obama stated the U.S. would work to "lead the global efforts to fight" global warming. The plan calls for "galvanizing international action to prepare for climate impacts and drive progress through the international negotiations."
Obama's solutions focus on reducing trade barriers for "global free trade in environmental goods and services," for example, through the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation consensus forged in 2011. And the US Climate Action Plan will aim to increase multilateral and bilateral agreements with major emerging economies -- in particular Brazil, China and India, where Secretary of State John Kerry just finished up travels and negotiations.
Buried in the final pages of the report, the Climate Action Plan states, "The United States will continue to promote the safe and secure use of nuclear power worldwide through a variety of bilateral and multilateral engagements" and "to advance the development and deployment of clean coal technologies." On the upside, the plan calls for an end to fossil fuel subsidies in the U.S. in 2014 and working with partners worldwide toward this goal.
The Climate Action Plan also outlines work to be conducted through international negotiations.
The Climate Action Plan touts a commitment to hammering out an international agreement through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change by the end of 2015. But the position outlined in the action plan remains basically the same as it has been since 2009 in Copenhagen: The U.S. will not step up to the plate unless other developing nations do as well. They are not historically responsible for the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, so they are reluctant to make the first step. It is not quite clear how a reiteration of a position that has prevented any movement at the UN negotiations in at least four years will bring about a treaty.
Specifically, the plan touted and repeated plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by 2020 based on 2005 levels, "if all other major economies agreed to limit their emissions as well." The pledge was first made by the Obama administration in 2009.
While the amount sounds on par with the pledges of other countries, many offering 20% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, most countries use 1990 as the baseline year. Using 1990 as a baseline for the U.S.'s 17% pledge reduces it to a measly 3-4% reduction.
Compare it with the 20-35% pledge offered by most other developed nations, targets that these countries are not only meeting but exceeding, the U.S.'s offer is paltry and hardly a sign of leading the global fight against climate change. Viewed from outside the U.S., the country is embarrassingly behind.
As Bill Snape, senior council at the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Progressive: "The pollution control measures announced by the president today are aimed at fulfilling his administration's pledge to put the United States on the path to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. But such a reduction falls far short of what the U.S. pledged in the Kyoto Protocol and would not be enough to avert catastrophic temperature rises, according to climate scientists."
"We're happy to see the president finally addressing climate change," Snape continued, "but the plain truth is that what he's proposing isn't big enough, and doesn't move fast enough, to match the terrifying magnitude of the climate crisis."
In a briefing on Monday, White House spokesperson Jay Carney stated that the president's plans sought to redress Congress' inability to pass climate legislation. In 2010, the Senate failed to pass climate legislation.
Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace US, told The Progressive: "The current Congress has made it clear that it will be on the wrong side of history, so it is absolutely vital for the President to use his authority to reduce power plant pollution, move forward with renewable energy projects on public lands, and increase energy efficiency."
"It appears that President Obama is beginning to make good on his climate promises, but to truly meet his obligation to future generations, this must be the foundation -- not the final act -- of his climate legacy," Radford said. "The President must finally abandon George W. Bush's catastrophic 'all of the above' energy strategy without half-measures or false promises. There's no room in a sane energy policy for the Keystone pipeline, 'clean coal,' fracking, Arctic oil drilling, or giant giveaways to the coal industry."
Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist and academic who covers energy policy, climate negotiations and related direct actions. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Climate Progress, Grist, The Nation, The Progressive and the Washington Monthly.