Moving Forward on Climate Change

Climate change has been a central issue for the Obama administration since assuming office in 2009. Framing the issue of climate as a moral obligation to future generations, the administration committed to reducing U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to nearly 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Once again, President Obama signaled his commitment to addressing climate when the White House laid out its plan for dealing with climate change last Tuesday. As promised in the State of the Union and Inaugural Address, the administration demonstrates its commitment to advancing this agenda with or without congressional action.

A few observations about the President’s Climate Action Plan:

Balance: From a climate change perspective, the president’s plan is balanced. The plan is comprised of three key categories of actions that address carbon reduction, adaptation and preparedness efforts, and international collaboration. A balanced approach to long-term climate action requires attention to all three areas since no level of emissions reduction can protect against the climatic changes already underway and improved scientific understanding of current and future impacts helps society to better prepare.

It includes domestic policies designed to curb emissions from new and existing power plants, speeds up the development and deployment of clean and efficient energy technologies, and signals efforts to reduce methane emissions and HFCs from a variety of sources in the economy. It maintains a commitment to climate change science, which is a vital component to continuing and improving our collective understanding of the current and possible future impacts of a changing climate. Furthermore, it seeks to make this information more user-friendly and accessible to communities seeking to establish climate resilience plans or strategies. The plan also recognizes the need to increase our adaptation activities and provide aid to bolster climate resilience and preparedness. Finally, it recognizes the critical task and role of the United States in shoring up international efforts to tackle climate change. The plan calls for working through a variety of multilateral and bilateral venues to pursue climate action wherever possible (Major Economies Forum, Montreal Protocol, cooperation with China and India, etc.) while still showing a commitment to progress under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process (UNFCCC), the main venue for negotiations towards a climate change agreement.

Timeframe: The entire plan is geared towards achieving its goal of emissions reduction of 17 percent below 2005 by 2020. From a political standpoint this could be a much more acceptable timeframe to use as the basis for a public policy conversation than 2050 as the target seems more achievable, though certainly not easy to meet. While this pivot may seem insignificant to some in the policy community, it is an important part of “changing the conversation” about climate change alluded to as a goal of the administration by White House advisors in the run-up to the speech.

Another question of timing revolves around how quickly the administration will move to advance the most impactful parts of the plan. Shortly after President Obama announced in his Climate Action Plan the intent to revise and reissue the proposed greenhouse gas rule for future power plants, the EPA sent the White House the latest draft of the proposal it originally issued in April of 2012. The EPA’s draft proposal for existing power plants called for by President Obama in his Climate Action Plan is due June 2014 with a goal for final action by June 2015. This is fairly swift notification of a potentially aggressive timeframe for action on this front.

Clarity: As is true of everything in the policy space, the devil is in the details and some of the biggest impacts will come from details that have yet to be revealed or decided. Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is how the limits on emissions from existing power plants will be implemented. By the administration’s own admission, regulating greenhouse gases through command and control mechanisms is not the most economically efficient way of reducing emissions. Absent congressional willingness to implement other measures, however, the administration has decided to pursue this option.

President Obama also raised the question of Keystone XL approval. In his speech, the president was careful in his wording, stating that he would instruct the State Department to approve the pipeline only if the project “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on the climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.” Both supporters and opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline claimed victory after the president’s remarks. However, it would seem that the president’s remarks allow him flexibility in his decision to either approve or block the project—depending on how the words significantly and net effects are interpreted and how the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) from the State Department assesses the emissions issue. Note: the Draft Supplementary EIS, released in March 2013, noted that whether Keystone XL was approved or denied that the oil would find its way to market eventually, with or without the pipeline.

Ambition: Environmentalists have already noted that administrative actions alone will not be enough to reduce emissions in a way that significantly improves the chances of avoiding the worst impacts of global climate change. As the International Energy Agency laid out once again in a study last week, even the most ambitious efforts to reach the 2020 targets agreed to by the international community, including the United States, will require much deeper emissions reductions post-2020 to prevent warming above the 2 degree Celsius limit (the temperature rise limit recommended by the scientific community and often used in climate negotiations). While some in the climate community bemoan the administration’s plan as too little too late, those outside the community may wonder to what end emissions are being reduced if the future actions needed to meet global climate goals seem so difficult to achieve. Paradoxically, even the implementation of these initiatives will be hard fought battles here in Washington and abroad.

Click here for a summary of the President’s Climate Action Plan.

Sarah O. Ladislaw is co-director of the Energy and National Security Program and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Molly A. Walton is a research associate with the Energy and National Security Program at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Sarah Ladislaw

Sarah Ladislaw

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Molly A. Walton