Obama on Climate Change: Don’t Fear the Future, Seize It

BY Jenny Marder  June 25, 2013 at 6:30 AM EST

Watch President Barack Obama’s announcement of his new climate plan.

Update: 2:30 p.m. ET | With sweat glistening on his forehead in the balmy Washington, D.C., heat, President Obama outlined a sweeping new climate plan Tuesday that he said proves America “is ready to meet the responsibility” of global warming.

In an impassioned speech, he laid out far reaching measures that aim to tackle increasing greenhouse gas emissions while preparing communities for the impacts of a warming planet, severe storms and sea-level rise.

“The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late,” Mr. Obama said. “And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world we leave behind, not just to you, but to your children and your grandchildren. As a president, as a father and as an American, I’m here to say, ‘We need to act.’”

The plan, which he announced at Georgetown University and which will not require Congressional approval, includes provisions to curb carbon emissions from existing power plants and to finalize standards for new plants. The plan also guarantees enough renewable building permits to power more than 6 million homes. It includes $8 billion in loan guarantees for energy efficiency and fossil fuel projects. And it helps farming and ranching communities prepare for climate-related wildfires and drought and protects coastlines against flooding caused by sea-level rise.

Daniel Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy for the Center for American Progress pointed to the new rules for existing power plants, which account for a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, as the most critical part of the new plan.

“It’s the largest uncontrolled source of carbon pollution, he said. “This is the single biggest step he can take to reduce America’s carbon pollution.”

New Yorkers sought relief from the summer heat at the Coney Island beach in August 2012. Last year marked the nation’s warmest year ever recorded; about one-third of all Americans experienced 10 days or more of 100-degree heat. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

However, some have said that such an action could raise the cost of energy and harm the economy. House Speaker John Boehner, for example, has called the proposal to regulate emissions from existing power plants “absolutely crazy” and warned that it could kill jobs.

The president addressed this directly, calling such claims “tired excuses for inaction” that suggest “a fundamental lack of faith in American business and ingenuity.”

He also surprised many with an update on the Keystone XL pipeline, expected to go unmentioned. The pipeline, which would transport tar sands oil from northern Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, will only serve the nation’s interest if it does not worsen the problem of climate change, he said.

“The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this will go forward,” he said, adding that the state department is in the final stages of evaluating the proposal.

In light of this major speech, we thought we’d seize this opportunity to provide a quick primer on the president’s record on climate change to date:

Among the top climate policies he’s implemented while in office:

  • In 2012, the president issued higher standards for gas mileage in cars. The new regulations, designed to both reduce oil use and curb greenhouse gas emissions, required automakers to nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks from 26 to 54 miles per gallon by 2025.

  • The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or stimulus, contained more than $90 billion in grants, loans and tax subsidies for renewable energy and energy efficiency, accounting for about 10 percent of the overall stimulus. It included funding for wind and solar projects, advanced batteries, home retrofits, energy-efficient public transportation and renewable energy research.

Some of those programs have been the subject of criticism for the way government money has been used to shape policy — even derision (as was the case with the now-bankrupt Solyndra). Still, they represent the administration’s most ambitious effort to date.

  • Earlier this month, Mr. Obama teamed with Chinese President Xi Jinping to scale back the emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFC’s — heat-trapping chemicals used in air-conditioning and refrigeration that can be up to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. Phasing out HFC’s entirely would be equivalent to eliminating 100 billion tons of CO2, said Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and a former Clinton White House climate aide.

“It’s amazing how huge these numbers are,” Bledsoe said, adding that it’s believed eliminating HFC’s would also lower global temperatures by a hefty half degree Celsius.

  • In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the endangerment finding, which found that greenhouse gas pollutants pose a danger to public health under the Clean Air Act.

“Think of the endangerment finding as the starting pistol in the race to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas pollution,” Weiss said. “That gives you the legal standing to say, you’ve made this finding, now you can take action.”

But there are still major sources of continuing tension:

  • Many are angry about the proposed 1700-mile Keystone XL pipeline. Critics fear its construction will open up more drilling in Canada’s oil sands, releasing massive quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Production of the heavier Alberta oil in tar sands releases roughly 15 percent more emissions than conventional oil.

  • The regulations established last year that limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants have been stalled by legal and political challenges, challenges that existing plants are also likely to meet. Earlier this month, the E.P.A. delayed the proposed rule, “saying it needed to respond to public and industry concerns,” according to this New York Times report.

    Moreover, utilities and many Republicans have said the change in emission rules are precisely the wrong policy, a costly change at a time when the economy is still trying to gain more strength and momentum.

“They’ll need to make sure that all the legal i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed to make sure that it is as unassailable in court as possible,” Weiss said.

  • Environmental advocates have long opposed the expansion of drilling under President Obama, particularly in Arctic waters. Ice floes and winds pose dangers, and drilling in that Alaskan region could disrupt the habitat of many animals, especially the threatened polar bear, they argue. Others claim that aside from the Arctic, he hasn’t opened any new areas for carbon production, and that domestic drilling provides an alternative to importing foreign oil.

  • Also lagging is infrastructure necessary for a transition to electric cars. The lack of public charging stations has prompted so-called “range anxiety” among those who might otherwise buy electric.

QUICK BITES

  • Check out these incredible close-up portraits of bugs at treehugger.com.

  • Using specially-designed collar GPS devices and tiny “cat cams,” a team of researchers in the United Kingdom waged one of the largest ever research projects into domestic cat behaviour. BBC News has a look at 10 of those felines. Great animations.

  • What does it feel like to stand on top of the tallest building in the world? Google took Street View to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

  • NASA collected these lovely photos of the supermoon as it rose over the Washington Monument on Sunday. For more on the supermoon and whether it’s been overhyped, read our piece here.

  • Ingestible computers, now in capsule form, can to transmit health data automatically. Once swallowed (voluntarily, of course), they can instantly relay to your doctor facts like whether you’ve taken your medication today or how well you are sleeping. At least one of the devices does not need a battery — it is powered by stomach acids. New York Times reports.

NOT SAFE FOR LUNCH

  • After sex, male dark fishing spiders curl up and die, occasionally becoming a post-coital snack for their mate, Science News reports.

More in this video:

Self Sacrifice from Science News on Vimeo.