Today President Obama gave a speech at Georgetown University outlining his plans for how to side-step a paralyzed Congress and take steps he can through the executive branch to respond to climate change.
As the President astutely and succinctly said today, “Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction.” Obama’s action plan boils down to three major areas: using less dirty energy, transitioning to cleaner sources of energy, and wasting less energy. His approach includes some things we have heard him tout since day one, including energy standards for appliances, buildings and cars. But they also included some surprises in terms of proactive planning at a federal level for the inevitable changes that we know will come in response to climate change, including requiring planning for increased flooding risk. In a huge surprise to many members of the environmental community who did not expect him to touch the pipeline hot-potato, Obama spoke clearly about the need for the State Department’s review of Keystone to show that there would not be a significant net increase of carbon emissions associated with the pipeline. I was also very pleased by his stated commitments to working at an international level, because as we all know, the US cannot work in isolation on this truly global challenge, and must meet the challenges of developing countries striving for the same quality of life, and often the attendant mass consumerism and increased emissions that go with that development. One of the concrete steps Obama called for in this arena is an end to subsidizing overseas coal plant development, which is an important stand to take, because weaning the US off coal does little to reduce carbon emissions if we continue to support overseas coal use through international coal infrastructure development and exporting our coal overseas.
There were, of course, some ideas that still need further vetting and consideration. Natural gas, which the president touted pretty unquestioningly as the cleaner alternative to coal, is a decidedly mixed bag for which the data is still unclear and incomplete as to how much of a benefit in carbon reduction this energy source really brings. I and many others think we should be very circumspect about considering natural gas a de facto climate solution (Conservation Magazine recently had a great article about the complications of our move to natural gas, you can read it here). And, of course, there is the general problem that working through the executive branch is of necessity a piecemeal approach done by executive orders, rather than a more concerted effort to create market or regulatory goals that more holistically address carbon pricing. But, as the President noted, we do not have time to sit around and wait for Congress to get their heads out of the sand on climate, we have to move forward, and in several important ways, his administration is doing this.
Obama’s last point in his speech is very important: this is not just a job for politicians. All of us need to ask for change, demand it, and speak out about how critical it is that we put ourselves on the right path to controlling carbon emissions. One step I took today is thanking the president for this very important, galvanizing speech and concrete measures. NRDC and several other organizations have made it pretty easy if you want to use some of their template letters to Obama that summarize several of his major points in the speech, or just drop him a line at the White House.