Obama Shifts Gears on Climate Change

13 February 2013

US President Barack Obama has outlined a series of new measures aimed at tackling climate change, following up on his January pledge to make the subject a priority in his second-term agenda. The announcement - which came as part of Obama's annual address to Congress on Tuesday evening - marks an overt change in tone on the issue, which has proven to be particularly divisive in the US.

The US president began his first four years in office with a strong position on combating climate change, leading many observers to believe the Obama Administration would take a far more aggressive position on the issue compared to the previous administration of George W. Bush. However, many environmentalist say they were disappointed when the US took a backseat in the international negotiations on the subject, which are held under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

During his inaugural address on 21 January that kicked off his new term, the president promised to "respond to the threat of climate change," a pledge that was viewed by observers as an early sign that Obama's second term might make the issue more of a priority than his first.

Accordingly, Obama followed up on this pledge in his speech on Tuesday by stressing the need to bring the issue back to the top of the domestic policy agenda, given recent extreme weather events.

"Yes, it's true that no single event makes a trend," Obama said. "But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods - all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it's too late."

Accordingly, he called on Congress to pursue "a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change," similar to the Climate Stewardship Act that was championed by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman - a Republican and Independent, respectively - some years ago. That initiative, and others following it, failed to make it out of Congress.

Should US lawmakers not act quickly enough at the federal level, Obama said that he would direct his cabinet to find executive actions that his office could take toward reducing pollution, fostering a quicker transition to sustainable energy sources, and preparing communities to handle climate change impacts. What form such actions might take, however, was left unspecified in the speech. Executive orders are a controversial tool in Washington, as some have criticised them for potentially circumventing the congressional process.

While market-based climate change initiatives have struggled to make significant headway in the US at the federal level, some efforts have moved forward at the state level. Specifically, California - the US' most populous state - recently implemented its own cap-and-trade programme. The scheme is part of California's efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, ultimately slashing 1990 levels by 80 percent by 2050.

Call for faster transition to renewable energy

As part of the push to drive down emissions, the US must continue to make inroads into the clean energy market, Obama said - particularly as other countries build up their own renewable energy sectors. Such an approach would not only help in fighting climate change, but would also create jobs, the US president argued.

"Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We've begun to change that," Obama said. "Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let's generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year - so let's drive costs down even further."

Renewable energy has been a contentious topic during Obama's presidency, particularly following the high-profile collapse in 2011 of Solyndra - a California-based solar cell manufacturer that had received over US$500 million in government guarantees. The fall of the company had triggered a wave of criticism for the administration's decision to provide the support, and sparked questions among some observers over the financial viability of green technologies.

The Solyndra case also brought renewed attention to the development of renewable energy sectors in the US' trading partners, particularly China. Rows between Washington and Beijing over both sides' clean energy support practices have become commonplace in recent years, with complaints over alleged dumping and illegal subsidies being tabled by both sides.

The need to keep pace with other countries in this field is paramount, Obama stressed on Tuesday. "As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we."

Energy efficiency is also key in the efforts to reduce emissions, the US president added, setting a goal of cutting in half the energy spent by homes and businesses over the next 20 years. He promised that those states with the best ideas for creating jobs and slashing energy bills via the use of more efficient building practices would be eligible for federal funding to translate those ideas into action.

Obama: Time to move away from oil

In his speech, Obama also stressed the need to focus on developing technology for cleaner natural gas and to reduce dependence on foreign oil - while eventually transitioning away from oil as an energy source.

With regard to the latter, the president proposed that the US' oil and gas revenues be used for funding an Energy Security Trust, which would be geared toward researching ways for cars and trucks to "transition off oil for good."

The reference to moving away from oil dependence comes amid growing speculation over the future of a proposed multi-billion dollar pipeline that would - if built - carry crude oil and bitumen from the oil sands of the Canadian province of Alberta to refineries south of the border.

The project, known as the Keystone XL pipeline, has been a lightning rod for controversy since the idea was first tabled nearly eight years ago. Environmental groups argue that the extraction and refining of Canadian sand oil carries a major carbon footprint, and that a spill could cause substantial environmental damage. Supporters, meanwhile, insist that the pipeline will provide safe, reliable oil access that will be an economic boon for both countries.

Obama blocked the pipeline over a year ago, citing an arbitrary deadline set by Congress on whether or not to approve the plan - but leaving open the possibility of endorsing a new application from TransCanada, the company behind the project. (See Bridges Weekly, 18 January 2012)

Lately, the fight over the pipeline has been gearing up for another round, with the news last month that Governor Dave Heineman of Nebraska has approved a revised route for the project - which has been seen as one of the plan's few remaining stumbling blocks. According to Heineman, the new route now avoids sensitive aquifers and other lands that could face severe environmental consequences in the case of an oil spill.

Given that the project crosses an international boundary, the pipeline will need to undergo a federal review by the US State Department - which now has John Kerry as its new Secretary - that would include an assessment of its environmental impact. Kerry promised last week that a federal decision on the project would be made in the "near term," without specifying the date further.

ICTSD reporting; "Kerry wants Keystone pipeline decision in ‘near term,'" THE HILL, 8 February 2013; "Keystone Pipeline Route Approved by Nebraska Governor," NEW YORK TIMES, 22 January 2013.

This article is published under
13 February 2013
The US has filed a formal challenge at the WTO regarding India's support policies for solar energy, Washington officials announced last week. At issue in the complaint is a local content requirement...
13 February 2013
Washington and Brussels have decided to begin negotiations for a trans-Atlantic trade and investment agreement, the two sides announced this week, bringing to a close months of speculation on whether...