Climate Change Change Gonna Come?

by Bill Chameides | January 22nd, 2013
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Obama, presidential inauguration, January 2013
In his second inaugural speech, Obama said: “We will respond to climate change.” Two important questions that remain are: is that possible and if so, how? (Official White House photo by Sonya N. Hebert)

Obama promises action on climate change during his second term.

Way back in 2009 when the 44th U.S. president addressed the nation in his first inaugural address, he brought up several of our environmental challenges and hinted at some solutions for addressing them.

“[E]ach day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet. …


We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We’ll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.”

Flash forward three plus years later to 2012 when his campaign for re-election was shifting into high gear. From that vantage point, it looked pretty clear that Obama’s pollsters were crunching numbers and concluding that, since it wasn’t a significant vote-getter, the issue of climate change would not be part of their campaign message. Of course the Republicans made a similar calculus.

And as for the media, well, while journalists off the campaign trail devoted scant, almost nonexistent coverage to climate change, with the occasional editorial here and there, reporters and editors covering the campaign were apparently totally disinterested in the subject — climate change was strikingly (dare I say shamefully?) absent from the discussions and debates on who would be our next president.

Climate Change and Sandy

But then a palpable shift occurred. The superstorm that was Hurricane Sandy charged up the East Coast, delivering a direct blow to the New York and New Jersey coasts and leaving in its wake a slightly different trajectory for news coverage on climate change.

Just days before the presidential election New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg — prominent politicians in areas hard-hit by the storm — called for action.

“Climate change is a reality,” Governor Cuomo stated in no uncertain terms, adding, “It’s a conversation I think is overdue.”

Mayor Bloomberg also had a clear message: “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Maybe the president took the hint or maybe it was part of his grand strategy, but on election night, Obama’s victory speech signaled a possible change — pointing to “the destructive power of a warming planet.” (See transcript | video.)

Yesterday in his second inaugural address the president doubled down.

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”

Obama’s 2nd Term and Climate

Rhetoric aside, when it comes to U.S. climate change policy and the next four years, I predict more of the same, perhaps with a bit more gusto. No sweeping federal legislation, no putting a price on carbon — given the current make-up of Congress, it’s just not in the cards.

Instead I see the same types of initiatives used by the first Obama administration to push the low-carbon agenda down the field. There are any number of these short-yardage options open to the administration, such as renewables energy subsidies, but there is a long-pass option too: Use the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act — as recognized by the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA — to clamp down on the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.

EPA has already proposed a rule that would make it virtually impossible to commission a new coal-fired power plant without carbon capture and sequestration. Now if the administration is really serious about climate change, they can turn their regulatory arsenal on existing power plants by applying the rule to all power plants.

The reduction would be significant. In 2011 generating electricity in the United States caused some 2,166 million metric tons of CO2 to be emitted.

As you can see from the table above by the Energy Information Administration, 98 percent of that electricity came from coal (79 percent) and natural gas (19 percent). Now suppose just for argument’s sake that natural gas was substituted for coal. Since natural gas emits about 40 percent less carbon dioxide than coal on a BTU-to-BTU basis, such a switch would lower U.S. emissions by more than 700 million metric tons. (Important caveat: this calculation does not account for extra warming caused by natural gas leakage.)

It’s Been a Long Time Comin’

So what will it take for such change? There will be lots of opposition to a regulation of this nature. I can think of at least two bases that the administration must cover if they choose to take on this challenge.

One thing that would make the regulation more palatable is the availability of a cheap cleaner alternative. There are lots of folks who think we’ve got that covered with hydrofracking and shale gas. But to make that coal-to-gas transition an environmental winner, we must have a strong federal program regulating the fracking industry and providing protection and compensation to affected households and communities. (For more on this see here and here and a poll here.) The administration better not fumble the ball on that one.

And to push emission regulations on coal-fired power plants through the byzantine process that governs the promulgation of rules and regs under the Clean Air Act, and stand up to the opposition that will oppose this regulation, the administration will need a dynamic and effective leader at EPA. Lisa Jackson has announced that she will be stepping down, so who’s likely to take over? That’s a topic for later this week.

Sidebar: An Inaugural Word Cloud

President Obama directly mentioned climate change in his inaugural address yesterday, but in terms of weight, other words and ideas got much more play in the ~18 minute speech. Science, as our word cloud generated from the address shows, was mentioned enough to rank in the cloud. (Can you spot it?) So how will science fare in Obama’s second term? That’s another one to watch in the coming months.

A word cloud of Obama's 2013 inaugural address

A word cloud of Obama’s 2013 inaugural address

filed under: carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, coal, energy, faculty, fracking, global warming, natural gas, policy, politics, science
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