The Burning Question: Can Obama deliver on climate change?

Where were you when Obama finally announced ambitious plans to tackle climate change yesterday, some five years after promising to do so as a presidential candidate? I found myself sitting in the offices of the Hub; a pioneering shared work and event space in Islington, North London, listening to Duncan Clark co-author of “The Burning Question”. Clarke eloquently argued, with the support of copious graphs, that “energy begets energy” and that it is only by addressing the fundamental issue of how do we leave carbon locked in the ground that we can succeed in addressing climate change. “We need to take on fossil fuels directly”, he says. Meanwhile in Georgetown University, President Obama is making a speech that many Republicans interpreted as a “war on coal”.

Perhaps the headline policy announced by the US President was the intention to empower the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control carbon emissions from existing coal and gas power plants. These generating stations account for a third of all US greenhouse gas emissions. “Power plants can still dump limitless carbon pollution into the air for free,” he said. “That’s not right, that’s not safe and it needs to stop.” But it will be 2015 before these targets are even set and by that time the Republicans could be back in power leaving the policy to go up in smoke. No doubt that legal challenges will follow and as the clock ticks, Obama’s exhortation that “we don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society”, will become a time bomb with a rather short fuse. Any progress that Obama might make in office has already been undermined by a Republican vow to unwind any policies waged in the “war on coal”. A flawed political, electoral and judiciary system that expends vast amounts of energy pushing the machinery of progress in one direction and then the other, reflects the state of the global energy market and broader world economy all too well.

Con Ed power plant in Queens, New York City © 2012 Colin Cafferty

Power plant on the East River in New York City

The other big story was Obama’s announcement that he would approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline (from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to the refineries on the Gulf of Mexico) only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.” But who’s definition of harm are we going by? The State Department has indicated that a pipeline is more environmentally friendly than transporting the crude oil by rail. And so the debate appears to be glossing over the fundamental question that is glaring us all (rather too warmly) in the face. Should the US facilitate the development of an energy source that unquestionably carries a higher carbon footprint than even conventional fossil fuels? This reframing of the debate on Keystone is an affront to our collective intelligence and must surely infuriate large swathes of American and Canadian folk alike.

Back in North London, Clark is talking about the pressing need to take on the fossil fuel industry. “The Burning Question” author sensibly advocates engaging the industry in the quest to address climate change. “What will it take to leave billions of dollars of fossil fuels in the ground?” he challenges. Do we realistically think we can persuade mining and energy companies to write off their fossil fuel reserves or for investors in the global markets to write down the value of their assets? One approach he advocates would be the development of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), a hitherto underfunded technology that would allow us to pump the CO2 from power plants into underground reservoirs where it can no longer warm the atmosphere. “Without CCS, the political will to leave fossil fuels in the ground will be that much harder” he points out soberly. Using all the tools at our disposal and converting the naysayers into “aye-sayers” are all sensible approaches but take a look at the position Obama now finds himself in. There is no stick long enough, no carrot sweet enough for a thick-skinned elephant and a stubborn donkey. He may be bypassing Congress now but just how far can he go with this approach?

So much of the wider political debate in the US is fuelled by fear – terrorism, gun control, loss of freedom and privacy. The US President’s proposals to build resilience towards climate change through strengthening of flood defences and soft infrastructure is the one policy announced yesterday that is most likely to succeed. And it is driven by fear. But most other proposed actions on climate change fuel fear in exactly the opposite way. The perceived attack on the fossil fuel industry and the angst over loss of jobs and quality of life in the US (even if unsubstantiated) needs greater reassurance from the left. A stronger business case needs to be made that can appease the concerns of those who stand to lose most from climate change legislation. Let’s hope that action on climate change will succeed because people believe it is the right thing to do rather than out of fear of averting another natural disaster such as the droughts in the American Midwest or hurricanes along the East coast.

Obama’s speech demonstrated that he definitely ‘gets’ climate change. He understands the moral obligation and he recognizes the sense of urgency. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he told the audience at Georgetown University. Actions and not words are what we need and it’s a telling sign when a person of such influence on the world stage cannot make a significant dint on an issue that he directly connects with the very future of his own children. But for now, there is still hope; as long as the debate is kept alive and the belief that the next generation deserves better than what we are currently prepared to offer them.

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.