Can Obama deliver on climate change in his second term in office?

 

Navajo coal-burning power plant near the entrance to Antelope Canyon in Arizona

Navajo coal-burning power plant near the entrance to Antelope Canyon in Arizona

President Obama’s inauguration speech yesterday gave some well-needed hope to the environmental movement by signaling that he is prepared to take action on climate change during his second term in office. It’s fair to say that many commentators and the wider public were caught on the hop. Obama’s silence on the issue during re-election campaigning has been noteworthy. And yet he devoted an entire paragraph (13 lines) to climate change in yesterday’s speech compared to just a single line in his first term inaugural speech 4 years ago. Back then he pledged, “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” This sentence appears poetic, almost biblical as if he was prophesizing a future that could only be achieved by divine intervention. It also seems rather distant and disconnected from reality.

This time round, he spells out the consequences of inaction. On the squandered employment opportunities by failing to invest in renewable technology, he exhorts that, “We must claim its promise”. Indeed such inaction on the part of the US is allowing other nations such as Germany, South Korea and China to steal a march. Despite some pragmatism, his speech still carries religious undertones as he talks about “how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God”. In this regard, it appears that he is attempting to reach out to Republicans by reframing the debate on climate change as a duty to God and country to protect “our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped peaks”. However, if someone refuses to believe that man-made climate change is even real, then this new narrative is something of a dead-end. Instead, we could be listening to Obama’s own personal convictions. Obama knows only too well that just four years remain to make history and to be remembered not just for the colour of his skin but also for the legacy he leaves behind. As a family man with two young daughters, there is little doubt that they are a driving force and inspiration that reinforces his personal conviction to tackle 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”. Fine words indeed but is he actually able to deliver on them?


The President of the United States may be billed as the most powerful man in the world but if Obama really does possess superpowers, then the Republican Party is surely his kryptonite.  The GOP controls the House of Representatives and has vowed to frustrate any attempts to pass legislation that harms the fossil fuel industry and other backers of the party. Even some within his own party have yet to be convinced of the need for action on climate change. A Cap-and-Trade bill proposed during his first term was defeated even at a time when the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress.  Perhaps this was for the better, as European attempts to control carbon emissions using the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) have failed miserably so far. The current price of carbon is trading at a measly five euros with carbon allowances flooding the markets. Hardly a meaningful incentive for power plants and heavy industry to curb their carbon emissions.


It would appear that Obama is ready to take a new tack on climate change this time round. The American political system has become so polarized in recent years that attempts at seeking consensus are futile. So rather than trying to take such a radical measure as creating a carbon market in the US, the President is likely to take a more measured approach that allows him to make full use of his executive powers that do not require congressional approval. Rather than aiming high and making little or no progress, he will most likely set his sights lower at a more modest but achievable set of targets. No doubt he and his advisors know only too well the limits of their power after four years in office. This approach obviously has a very real downside in that tinkering at the edges will not achieve the change necessary to reduce carbon emissions in time. Options already on the table are the regulation of carbon as a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act and a tightening of energy efficiency measures such as the automotive fuel-efficiency standards, which are due to increase to more than 54 miles per gallon by 2025. One way of exploiting his executive decree and thereby circumventing Congress would be to veto the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposed to deliver oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the heartlands of America. Pressure exerted by Canadian conservatives and US states with oil refineries is likely to be intense. Tar sands have a much greater carbon footprint than even the dirtiest of fossil fuels (coal) and extraction methods scar huge swathes of virgin landscape, polluting rivers in the process. Energy security will most likely be cited as justification to support the project in a similar vein to fracking, which has also exploded onto the scene in recent years.


Obama will need to pick his battles carefully and so tighter regulation of fracking may be an alternative battleground to make a stand on climate change. The Washington Post proposes that EPA powers could be extended to regulate methane leaks from the burgeoning fracking industry. Fracking is a process whereby a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into fissures in shale rock to force natural gas up to the surface. Fracking technology has been one of the saving graces for the American economy in recent years, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the barren plains of North Dakota where lights from the local fracking industry are now visible from space. Methane is 24 times more polluting than carbon dioxide when it comes to climate change. Any methane that escapes is therefore likely to undo much of the benefit associated with burning natural gas that is “cleaner” than coal.  Equally any attempt to impose additional costs on “frackers” that could make the industry less competitive are likely to result in stalemate. The EPA already has the authority to regulate CO2 thanks to a 2007 Supreme Court decision. However, this only applies to future power plants and not the existing ones, which are responsible for a whopping 40% of the nation’s carbon emissions. Any action to clamp down on power utilities and the fossil fuel industry will no doubt be vigorously contested in the courts. As an outsider, I’m always amazed by the apparent injustice of the American legal system in the hands of obscenely well-paid lawyers who can defeat legislation on some obscure technicality.


One concern is about how many concessions the EPA will be forced to make as it seeks to implement the Clean Air Act. The New York Times reported last week that the Navajo Generating station in Arizona secured a further 5-year extension from the EPA meaning that it now doesn’t have to implement controls on nitrogen oxides until 2023. I was fortunate to visit the US Southwest last March and as I approached the spectacular Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona, I was greeted by the sight of three towering chimney stacks belching smoke high into the blue skies above pristine red-rock country. The 2,200MW plant provides electricity for customers in California, Nevada and Arizona and provides valuable employment for many Native Americans belonging to the Navajo Nation. But the owners will need to invest in the region of $1 billion to install new catalytic reduction technology to render nitrogen oxides harmless. Are they any more likely to be able to afford the costly upgrade in 10 years time than they are today? And will they be able to afford to meet new and separate requirements on reducing carbon dioxide emissions? Here is a clear example of the true cost associated with fossil fuels, which are largely externalized. Nitrogen oxides not only have health impacts but also contribute to much of the haze that hangs over the Grand Canyon, obscuring breath-taking views. Similarly carbon emissions are directly responsible for the far greater (and as yet unknown) costs of adapting to future climate change and responding to the impacts of extreme weather today.

For now we can only cling to the US President’s every word in hope and attempt to read deeper meaning into those solitary 13 lines of his inaugural speech. We will need to wait until the State of the Union address in February to get a better indication of what real and meaningful action Obama plans to take and whether he is serious about creating a legacy for himself on this issue. In 2009, the President pledged to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. Many experts think this is far too little, too late from the world’s second largest polluter. Right now, there’s probably more than a few concerned environmentalists who would settle for second prize.

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