The Climate Change President

The U.S. has been slow to embrace climate change as a reality and slower to embrace climate action as a policy priority. Environmentalism more broadly struggled to take hold until the later half of the 20th century, with the publishing of major works like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 heralding it into the public conversation. Some presidential administrations took some action in response to the public outcry, with President Nixon, for example, founding both the EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The Carter administration issued the first comprehensive report on global environmental challenges and listed global man-made climate change as one of the key issues. However, theirs and subsequent administrations and congresses produced few, if any, policies to address it.

One of the key legislative developments, however, occurred in the Energy Policy Act of 1992: the production tax credit (PTC), which provides a federal tax break of 2.3 cents/kilowatt-hour for wind and geothermal energy sources. Unfortunately, the PTC has been subject to several expirations and hesitant extensions, leading to a "boom and bust" cycle of production in the wind industry. In immediate years following expiration, installations would drop 76-93 percent with corresponding job losses for wind workers. Although Bush did sign the Energy Policy Act of 2005 into law, which continued subsidies for renewables, the administration prioritized subsidies for carbon-emitting ethanol to a far greater degree. The Bush administration did little to advance renewable energy development and even withdrew the U.S.'s non-binding signature from the Kyoto Protocol.

Before the Obama administration, no president made addressing climate change a leading priority in his administration. Obama has been keen to break that trend. During the 2008 campaign he said he would aim to reduce overall carbon emissions by at least 20 percent by 2020 and 60 percent by 2050, compared to 2005 levels. Right after he was sworn into office he addressed the "violent conflict, terrible storms [and] shrinking coastlines" that result from climate change, saying the "planet [is] in peril" and that "the time for denial is over." Appointing Clinton era EPA Administrator Carol Browner as his "climate czar" and Dr. John P. Holdren as the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology signaled the administration intended to follow through on his campaign promises. While his climate policies may not have unfolded in the way he initially intended, i.e. through making compromises with Congress, Obama's various executive actions and international negotiations have put the U.S. in a prime position to be a worldwide climate leader. His policies and rhetoric promoting renewable energy and smart energy policies have been key in establishing this field as a central topic in American politics and policy.

Obama was initially very keen to push a climate agenda through legislative means. With Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, the administration had a strong chance of pursuing a legislative strategy. In 2009, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), chairman of a key subcommittee, introduced the American Clean Energy and Security Act on May 15. Nicknamed the "Waxman-Markey Bill," it would have established a cap-and-trade program that would aim to reduce emissions 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and have revenues from permits go towards research and development on clean energy. However, a significant number of Democrats, who represented coal and rust belt districts, refused to support the bill. Because their states could be hit with deep costs, these lawmakers understood that supporting the bill could have resulted in the loss of their seats. When the bill went to the floor, about 183 congressional members supported it, and it would need about 35 more to pass. While the administration declined to vocally endorse the bill, Obama personally telephoned undecided representatives to vote in favor, helping make compromises with those concerned Democrats. On June 26, the House passed the bill 219-212, with 44 Democrats voting no and 8 Republicans voting yes. Despite this narrow victory, the Senate did not build upon the House vote. Despite a few Democratic-led Senate committees pushing legislative proposals that included a cap-and-trade system, Majority Leader Harry Reid did not include that measure in the comprehensive energy bill the Senate was developing, noting the lack of bipartisan support for cap-and-trade. The Waxman-Markey bill thus never made it to the Senate for a vote.

Instead of pursuing broad national action unilaterally, Obama, in addition to promoting a legislative agenda, ensured federal regulations considered climate and environmental concerns in their operations. A 2009 executive order required federal agencies to increase energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve water conservation, and improve waste management. Other than this, however, in his first-term Obama mostly pursued relatively fruitless legislative strategies instead of executive action to encourage renewable energy development. This may have been strategic: at the time, excluding concerns among most Democrats, global warming ranked among the last of American concerns, and the administration wouldn't risk pursuing executive action on such a generally unpalatable issue, especially during the 2012 election. I noted back then that neither the President nor Mitt Romney even mentioned climate change in the foreign policy debate, marking the first time in decades it was omitted in this particular forum. Its absence was likely due to the country's growing partisan chasm that made global warming resonate almost solely with Democratic voters and unpalatable to the average voter. That is not an excuse for downplaying the issue during the election, but it is understandable why the President wouldn't bring it up too often on the campaign trail.

However, in the first June of his new term, Obama laid out an in-depth and long term strategy in a Georgetown University speech on how his administration would take unilateral steps to address climate change. He broke new policy ground by proposing to incentivize all states to actively work towards reducing America's emissions. In declaring his goal, he used the precedent set by the Supreme Court in the 2009 case EPA v. Massachusetts, which required the agency to regulate carbon gases under the provisions of the Clean Air Act. The Clean Power Plan (CPP) is the first policy of its kind, providing nationwide incentives for all states to develop renewable and clean technologies and setting up carbon reduction standards. It also directs the EPA to provide mechanisms for states to cooperate in developing energy and reducing individual state spending; emissions trading is one of these proposed mechanisms, a system by which power plants can buy and trade permits to emit carbon, similar to a cap-and-trade program. This creates a relatively low cost financial incentive to decrease emissions and gives clean energy plants a key market advantage.

Unlike previous administrations, Obama did not simply propose some vague reductions goal to tout at the next UNFCCC meeting. He took further steps to craft the policy infrastructure for the U.S. to be a climate leader. He is, essentially, the first president to demonstrate decisive leadership in this field. At the international level, he vocally encouraged others to do their part. His bilateral negotiations and agreements with China saw both countries setting carbon goals and committing to develop renewables, sending a signal to both developed and developing nations to do the same. Although he took time making the decision, Obama vetoed the Keystone XL Pipeline. While it would have emitted a marginal amount of carbon compared to the whole of current emissions, the refusal to partake in the development of the environmentally disastrous Alberta Tar Sands signaled a new environmentally conscious approach in a president's decision-making.

Environmentalists have bemoaned, however, how his administration has ushered in the fracking boom (both in the US and abroad). While producing overall fewer emissions than coal or oil, natural gas production indeed has severe environmental and health risks. Regardless of where you stand on fracking, however, Obama clearly aimed to present the natural gas boom as a two-pronged win for reducing emissions and the American energy industry. Rhetorically at least, he wanted to paint it as a step forward for the climate cause, helping prove emissions could be reduced (even if only marginally) at the same time as increased economic growth. He has also repeatedly voiced his concern about climate change in his touting of natural gas as a "stepping stone" fuel while increasing renewable capabilities. And there are signs he is pursuing more regulation on the industry. Recently, for example, he and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed to reduce methane emissions from natural gas pipelines, a crucial measure, as methane gas has 80 times the potential of carbon dioxide to trap atmospheric heat.

Obama's success is intricately tied to the energy landscape he entered as president, in which renewables have surged in the market. In 2007 cumulative wind energy production was 16,702 MW and gradually rose to be 65,879 MW in 2014. In 2007, the US installed just 160 MW worth of solar PV. With a variety of innovations in rooftop solar and large-scale plants, the number rose to 7,260 MW installed in 2015. The renewable appetite is clearly in the populace, and Obama has taken note, offering a variety of loan guarantees and other incentives to boost the industry's development. The President has used the issue of addressing climate change as an economic incentive, encouraging the development of tens of thousands of jobs in the building and maintenance of renewable energy plants, debunking the myth that economic development and environmental protection must remain diametrically opposed. He has even touted home-generated solar power as an issue that unites environmentalists and Tea Partiers, as the latter group strives for independence from large-scale utilities, an independence that is created by generating power at home.

Obama and the broader climate movement's successes are evident in recent congressional developments. On April 20th the Senate passed the Energy Policy Modernization Act, which is slated to promote renewable energy, improve the energy efficiency of buildings, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and speed the export of domestically produced natural gas. The act united Democrats and Republicans, with a landslide vote of 85-12. However, the Senate passed this act by avoiding mentioning "climate change" explicitly, concentrating on the economic benefits more than on any environmental concerns. Yet, its passage helps prove that Obama's economic argument on renewables is politically palatable and can result in legislative breakthroughs.

Of course, potentially severe obstacles remain that could derail Obama's climate legacy. The CPP has yet to be fully implemented and the Supreme Court issued a stay on it back in February. Pending review, its future is uncertain. However, if the court issues a split 4-4 decision (as it already has on other cases) the D.C. Circuit Court's previous decision to deny the stay would stand, clearing the legal hurdle for the CPP. On the political scene, there is little doubt that if the Republicans won the White House in November, they would do their best to scrape away the CPP and other renewable and climate-based incentives. After the most recent set of Democratic primaries, it looks Hillary Clinton is the presumptive nominee. She has been a vocal supporter of the President's climate deals and energy policies and issued a markedly ambitious plan to build upon these measures to increase the country's renewable share of electricity to 33% by 2027. Measures include continuing to encourage renewable production at the state level through loan guarantees, bolstering renewable standards, and ultimately building off the CPP. It is clear that climate action and renewable energy development have become topics with considerable standing in the public and political discussion. Evidently, one of the major figures history will note for that change is President Barack Obama.