Change (on Climate Change) We Can Believe In?

Obama prepares for climate change action in his second term
  • In both his second inaugural address and his fifth State of the Union, President Obama signaled a new commitment to tackling climate change. Yet, his administration has only a mixed environmental track record.
  • Every step forward – and with increased vehicle mileage standards, declining carbon dioxide emissions, and strengthened air quality standards, there were many – was matched by a new indication of the administration’s hesitation to exert global leadership on climate negotiations.  
  • Now, in a second term already marked by promises of executive action if need be, prominent appointments of avowed environmental advocates, and a noticeable shift in rhetoric, President Obama will be first put to the test when faced with the decision to move forward with the Keystone XL pipeline. 
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Superstorm Sandy helped catapult climate change onto the national agenda. (Pete Souza // The White House)

Following the call to action and sweeping plan of attack offered by President Obama during his second inaugural address last month and State of the Union this week, it is clear that he has made climate change a priority in his second term.  From outlining the need to increase renewable energy research and installations to setting an ambitious goal of improving efficiency in homes and businesses by 50 percent over the next twenty years, President Obama’s wide-reaching plan has the potential to once again make the United States a global leader in environmental action.

While President Obama’s renewed commitment to address climate change has raised hopes, it is important to review the successes and failures of his last four years in order to set realistic expectations for what is possible during his second term.

Early during his first term, the United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen presented President Obama with a major international opportunity to demonstrate how his Administration would differ from the previous eight years of the United States playing foil to international environmental cooperation during the Bush Era.  The Obama Administration did not rise to the challenge, instead offering minor concessions while continuing to push for stalling the negotiations until 2015 and beyond, effectively deferring the responsibility for an international treaty to the next Presidential term.

Domestically, Obama’s environmental track record fared somewhat better.  The Administration has advanced environmental protection by increasing vehicle mileage standardsexpanding protected areasstrengthening air quality standards, and raising federal investment in clean energy to the highest levels in US history.  On the other hand, the Obama Administration failed to oversee comprehensive climate legislation, and has drawn out the decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Of course, there are some extenuating circumstances that Obama faced in his first term that made success more difficult to achieve.  While a lack of political readiness or will to move may be to blame for the Administration’s lack of forward progress at international negotiations, domestically the Obama team’s success was tempered by a divided Congress, the prolonged economic depression, and a desire to remain an appealing candidate throughout a hotly contested re-election. 

But with pressing economic and social issues and an arguably more partisan divide in Congress continuing to present barriers similar to those in the first term, why should we believe that success on environmental action in Obama’s second term will be any different?

For starters, the President has already demonstrated that he is not afraid to bypass Congress this term, especially in achieving his ambitious social policy reform agenda.  In his State of the Union address, President Obama urged the joint houses of Congress to once again pursue a market-based solution to climate change, but affirmed, “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”  Sending a strong message, this call to action indicates that the Environmental Protection Agency will finalize carbon emission standards from new power plants and move forward to establish emission limits from existing power plants, regardless of action from Congress.

With new momentum for environmental action at the start of his second term, President Obama has filled several positions in his Administration with appointees well known for their leadership on environmental issues.  By bringing in Dennis McDonough, an advocate of urgency in tackling climate change, as Chief of Staff, and nominating Sally Jewell, former CEO of REI and outspoken conservation advocate, as Secretary of Interior, President Obama demonstrated his commitment to addressing environmental challenges this term.  Notably, President Obama chose John Kerry, who as a Senator sponsored a comprehensive climate bill, as Secretary of State – a position that will place him in charge of international climate negotiations and make him instrumental in the decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.

Additionally, President Obama made a point of linking environmental action with other priorities of his second term.  The President could not have been clearer about the role that environmental action will play in continuing the long path out of the recession, explaining to Congress that “we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth.”   And when President Obama addressed the need to improve our national infrastructure, he did so through the lens of creating climate-resilient infrastructure, integrating environmental action into the solutions our nation’s problems need.

Finally, increasingly stranger and more powerful weather patterns, such as the superstorms, droughts and wildfires that caused billions of dollars of damage across the US, are helping to contribute to a rise in public awareness and interest in taking climate action, presenting a unique window of opportunity for the President to act.  As the evidence continues to stack up and point towards the need for increasingly immediate action to stall global emissions, and as citizens become more and more vocal in their support for action, President Obama is gaining the momentum needed to take advantage of this unique opportunity.

In what is perhaps the best demonstration of the public’s increasing support for environmental action and the increasing pressure on the Obama Administration to fulfill its environmental promises, thousands of activists are expected to descend on Washington, D.C. this weekend for the latest rally against the Keystone XL pipeline.  President Obama’s decision on the pipeline will be one of the first tests of his seemingly renewed environmental resolve, signaling whether he is truly committed to transitioning away from fossil fuel dependence.  With no shortage of environmental issues to address in the next four years – from the path to energy security, to the call to end fossil fuel subsidies and the need for a serious U.S. proposal for an international climate treaty – the Keystone XL decision will set the tone for the rest of his time in office, either confirming or undermining the President’s promise to take environmental action.

Spencer Fields is a research intern with the Climate & Energy Program at the Worldwatch Institute.