Obama pauses to wipe sweat from his brow during a major speech about climate change at Georgetown University on June 25, 2013. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
President Obama briefed the nation Tuesday on his new plan to confront climate change, outlining the most aggressive, comprehensive approach by any U.S. president to date. And unlike many of his other policy goals, it doesn't rely on cooperation from Congress.
Speaking from the sunbaked steps of Georgetown University's Old North building, Obama repeatedly wiped sweat from his face as he described the dangers of a warming world and the urgency in addressing them. "Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction," he said, citing recent disasters like Superstorm Sandy and Midwestern droughts. "The question now is whether we have the courage to act before it's too late. As a president, as a father and as an American, I'm here to say we need to act."
The plan has two major components: cutting U.S. carbon pollution and preparing America for the effects of climate change. One of its main carbon-cutting tactics is to limit carbon dioxide emissions from both old and new power plants, but it also includes measures to boost clean-energy production and establish tougher efficiency standards for buildings and appliances. These efforts alone will have little effect on global warming overall, but they may nonetheless represent a watershed moment in U.S. climate politics.
"For too long the United States has lacked a national climate strategy," says Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute. "This has created great uncertainty at home and a leadership void in the international arena. With a national strategy that reaches across federal agencies, the president can reset the climate agenda."
The climate plan follows months of speculation, spurred by Obama's emphasis on the issue at January's inauguration, February's State of the Union address and a recent speech in Berlin. After failing to pass a major climate bill in his first term, Obama is now focusing on ways to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions without waiting for Congress — not a popular approach among many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, especially Republicans.
"While President Obama is preparing to roll out a new ream of red tape that will make American energy more expensive and destroy jobs, the House is moving forward with its all-of-the-above energy agenda," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Monday.
Despite criticism from political foes and industry groups, the plan is drawing support from scientists and environmental advocates. "This is the change we have been waiting for on climate," Sierra Club director Michael Brune said in a statement Tuesday. "Today, President Obama has shown he is keeping his word to future generations."
Here's a closer look at some of the main points in Obama's climate plan:
Electricity generation is the main source of U.S. CO2 emissions, producing about a third of the national total. Obama pledged in 2009 to cut U.S. emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels within a decade, a goal that faded months later when a cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate. The EPA is already working on a parallel plan to regulate new plants' emissions via the Clean Air Act, authorized by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, but Obama raised the bar Tuesday by announcing the agency will set limits for existing plants, too.
The EPA will work with states and industries to design the rules for existing plants, Obama explained, with drafts due by June 2014 and final versions due a year later. The long-delayed limits for new plants, he added, should be ready by October.
The shale gas boom has already cut demand for coal — lowering U.S. CO2 emissions to 1994 levels — but regulating older power plants would help keep it low. It could also boost U.S. credibility at U.N. climate talks, a key step for reaching decarbonization deals with China, India and other carbon-intensive countries. But while cutting emissions from new and old plants has environmental, economic and diplomatic benefits, it also brings political risks. It may further threaten the Senate's confirmation of Gina McCarthy as EPA chief, something Obama mentioned Tuesday as an example of misplaced partisanship.
"Gina has worked for the EPA in my administration, but she has also worked for five Republican governors," he said. "Unfortunately, she's being held up in the Senate, being forced to jump through hoops no candidate should have to jump through. The Senate should confirm her without any further delay."
The Obama administration has been working to encourage clean-energy development across the federal government's 650 million acres of public land, a priority reiterated in Tuesday's speech. "We've doubled the electricity we generate from the wind and the sun," Obama said, adding "the plan I'm announcing today will help us double [it] again."
Obama said he has directed the Interior Department to add another 10 gigawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2020, on top of 10 gigawatts it recently added. His climate plan also involves encouraging the development of hydroelectricity at existing dams, something he aims to achieve with "improved permitting procedures." And he announced that the Defense Department, the largest single consumer of energy nationwide, will deploy 3 gigawatts of renewable energy on military facilities by 2025.
On top of limiting emissions and shifting fuels, Obama also hopes to ease power plants' workload by helping consumers use energy more efficiently. He already ordered the Department of Energy to tighten efficiency rules for appliances in 2009, and the DOE says those changes will avert 6.5 billion tons of CO2 emissions and save $1.7 trillion by 2030.
The new plan will expand efficiency efforts for heavy-duty vehicles, household appliances and federally owned buildings, Obama said Tuesday, reducing emissions while saving money on fuel costs and energy bills. Appliance standards set between 2009 and 2016, for example, will reduce U.S. CO2 emissions by at least 3 billion metric tons over the next 20 years. And anticipating the familiar critiques of "job-killing" regulations, Obama again cited U.S. economic adaptability.
"The good news is simple upgrades don't just reduce pollution; they put people to work," he said. "The savings show up in our electricity bills every month, forever."
While most of Obama's climate plan focuses on controlling the causes of climate change, he spent part of his speech Tuesday addressing how America can adapt to the dangers it's already too late to prevent. "The hard truth is carbon pollution has built up in the atmosphere for decades now," he said, noting that weather will grow wilder even with major emissions cuts. "It's like tapping the brakes in your car before coming to a complete stop, and then shifting into reverse," he added. "It takes time."
A White House fact sheet on the climate plan lists an array of adapatation tactics, such as removing barriers to "climate-resilient investment," creating local task forces on climate preparedness, emphasizing disaster resistance in building codes, assessing economic vulnerability to storms and droughts, boosting agricultural sustainability with "Regional Climate Hubs," and providing more funds and data related to climate-change effects.
Addressing the common argument that "it's global warming, not 'America warming,'" Obama closed his speech Tuesday with an acknowledement that U.S. efforts will be useless if they don't inspire and inform other countries. "No nation can solve this problem on its own, even one as powerful as ours," he said. "So that's why our plan calls on America to lead. Make no mistake that the world still looks to America to lead."
This will involve more bilateral cooperation with major emerging economies, Obama explained, citing his recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping as an example. It will also mean helping them shift to cleaner sources of energy, with techniques ranging from "an end to public financing for new coal plants overseas" to "global free trade in environmental technologies." And he vowed to resist gridlock at U.N. climate talks, arguing it's possible to reach a deal that's inclusive, flexible but still ambitious.
"We compete for business with them, but we also share a planet," Obama said of nations like China. "They don't have to repeat all the same mistakes that we make."
Obama's renewed gusto for climate action follows years of battling with Republicans who distrust climate science itself, but on Tuesday he seemed undaunted by such disputes. His speech was laced with remarks that anticipated old arguments from climate-change deniers, and closed with a call for Americans to take a long view on the issue.
"I don't have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real," he said. "We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it's not going to protect you from the coming storm.
"While we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing the world we leave for our children is better off for what we did."
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