In a highly anticipated speech at Georgetown University, President Obama unveiled his long-over due plan for tackling climate change. While his plan will only take a small dent out of total emissions worldwide, it’s a step in the right direction. His approach: reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants for the first time, open up more federal lands in order to double wind and solar power capacity, further tighten car and truck fuel efficiency standards, expand the use of renewable energy by the federal government, and support local communities in climate adaptation planning. President Obama punted again on making a decision on the Keystone pipeline, which would bring oil from Canada’s tar sands, but argued that the project couldn’t move forward if it was found to “exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
President Obama said Americans must prepare for the adverse effects of climate change while also taking advantage of the opportunities found in a move to a cleaner economy and society, namely the chance to spur economic growth and create healthier, more resilient communities. He said more than 20 states and a 1,000 mayors have already moved forward with plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and adapt to changing sea levels and temperatures, but the Capitol’s political class is still stuck in the past. “It’s time for D.C. to catch up with the rest of the country.”
He joked that we no longer have “time for the meeting of the flat earth society,” comparing climate change deniers to those who too long remain unconvinced that the Earth was round. “We can’t stick our heads in the sand” on this one. Indeed, the President said the past 12 out of 15 years have been the hottest ever recorded, as global carbon dioxide emissions have reached record highs. 2012 was actually the hottest single year on record. Average ocean temperatures have reached their highest points, while the Arctic’s ice has shrunk to its smallest size ever.
While “droughts, floods, and extreme storms go back to ancient times,” weather events are becoming more extreme as water levels rise. President Obama said the water in New York harbor is one feet higher than it was a century ago, which made Hurricane Sandy far worse. Temperature changes were also behind the recent destructive dust bowl that hit the Midwest, and the subsequent heavy rains and storms that inundated farmers. This past year, wildfires consumed an area larger than Maryland.
Beyond the effects on human lives and livelihoods, climate change will simply cost a lot more, said President Obama. “Emergency services and disaster relief will cost billions more. How are we going to pay for more expensive fire seasons?” Food costs are also expected to go up with more frequent crop damages. “Americans will be paying for the price of inaction.”
While some environmental and conservation organizations have criticized Obama for not doing enough on the environment, he said progress was made over his first term. The U.S. has managed to further reduce carbon dioxide emissions, recently hitting a 20-year low. “No country has reduced carbon emissions as much as us since 2006.” His administration has doubled wind and solar power, building on investments President George W. Bush made as well. By the middle of the next decade, the Obama administration will have doubled mileage per gallon. The U.S. is now producing more of its own energy, with the rise of destructive hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to get at more natural gas.
Moving forward, President Obama will ask the E.P.A. to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from both new and existing power plants, the first time the U.S. government is doing this. “Right now, there are no federal regulations on carbon from these plants. They can dump for free. It’s not right or safe and needs to stop.” The president said he would take a flexible approach and ask the E.P.A. to “develop standards in an open and transparent way.” Already some states are modernizing how they regulate power plant emissions.
He plans to double again wind and solar energy capacity by asking the department of the Interior to open up more lands. Right now, these renewable energy sources account for about 12-13 percent of current energy production. Given this approach will certainly put conservationists at odds with renewable energy environmentalists, a balanced and sensitive approach will be needed. President Obama also noted that 75 percent of all wind power is now produced in Republican states, creating “tens of thousands of good jobs.” The department of defense will be asked to install gigawatts of new renewable power plants on its properties, enough to power 6 million homes by 2020. “This will equal the power found in 3 million tons of coal.”
There wasn’t much discussion on energy efficiency, other than that administration will push for more stringent energy standards for appliances. He mentioned that buildings account for more than 30 percent of emissions, but didn’t reach out to the design community to ask them to accelerate progress on Architecture 2030 through efforts like LEED and the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES). The design and construction industries are making progress on changing practices but green buildings and landscapes still remain a stubbornly small share of the total stock out there.
Speaking of landscapes though, President Obama did seem to make the case for incorporating green infrastructure into the mix when dealing with climate adaptation efforts. “We can reduce the risks of flooding by using natural barriers. Dunes and wetlands can do double duty as storm and flood protection.” Perhaps he’s the first president to make the case for using natural systems to deal with these difficult water challenges. His broader remarks though were about the need for “smarter, more resilient infrastructure,” whether it’s green or grey. As an example, he pointed to a number of communities like Miami Beach, Florida, which have asked the federal government for funds to adapt to climate change by strengthening their infrastructure against storms, flooding, and salt water intrusion. More federal funds will be made available to communities to plan and implement these kinds of projects.
Lastly, while the president said the U.S. is still a leader overseas on climate change (something the Europeans may dispute), his administration can still do more. His administration will push for increasing climate change finance available to developing countries, as part of an effort to put an end to coal plants worldwide, unless there is really no other energy sources available. He wants to promote the use of clean energy technologies through a global free trade agreement, so “more countries can avoid making the same mistakes we did.”
Image credit: Heidi Petersen / ASLA