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A BFD for Our Climate

Dan Lashof

Posted January 22, 2013

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President Obama promised that “[w]e will respond to the threat of climate change,” in what the New York Times called the most prominent policy vow of his second inaugural address.

If he delivers on that promise—and he has the authority to do so by setting carbon pollution standards for existing power plants and rejecting the Keystone XL dirty fuel pipeline—it will be, in the immortal words of Vice President Joe Biden a “Big…Deal.”


The commentariat is a-twitter debating whether President Obama’s first term was a Big…Deal or a Big…Disappointment.  Jill Lawrence and Ron Fournier debated the case in the National Journal, while Paul Krugman and Tom Friedman have taken different tacks recently in the New York Times.  I suspect, however, that all four would agree that when it comes to climate change the results just aren’t in yet.

The Big…Disappointment camp could point to the collapse of comprehensive climate legislation in 2010 and climate silence during the presidential debates of 2012. Meanwhile, the Big…Deal camp can point to $90 Billion in clean energy investments in the stimulus bill of 2009 and path breaking standards in 2012 that will eventually cut carbon emissions from new vehicles in half.

But the president’s climate legacy, and a significant portion of his overall legacy, will be determined by what he does to curb carbon pollution in his second term. The prominence he gave to climate change in his speech is as clear an indication as I could have hoped for that the president understands this. Here is the climate section of his speech in its entirety:

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. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That's what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

These words were certainly carefully chosen, so let’s break them down a bit.

First the president makes it clear that he doesn’t view responding to climate change as an optional initiative—it is an obligation that we have to all posterity and to our children. That’s Malia and Sasha for him; Matt, Sam and Robin for me. This is personal, not policy wonkery.

Second the president confronts the climate deniers. No matter what they believe, or say they believe, it doesn’t change the facts. Raging fires, crippling drought, and more powerful storms are a reality that is affecting our families, our communities, and our economy. They are here. They are now.

The president then pivots immediately to clean energy, connecting the moral argument for action to the economic one. “America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.” That’s the key to economic vitality in the 21st Century.  

The time for more policy details will be soon upon us—we will look for those in and around the president’s State of the Union address on February 12th—but right now we need to gear up to help the president achieve his vision, and keep pushing him if his actions fall short. As the president said, “[t]he path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.” That’s not because of technology or economics, it’s because the entrenched fossil fuel interests and extreme ideologues will not go quietly into the night.

The good news is that the president has all the tools he needs to achieve a Big…Deal for the climate. His EPA has the authority and the legal (as well as moral) obligation to create emissions limits for the 1500 existing power plants that produce 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution. (NRDC put forward a proposal last month that would enable our nation to cut these emissions by 26 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels.) His State Department has the authority and the obligation to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, because how can it be in the national interest to transport even dirtier fossil fuels at a time when we need to be making the transition to sustainable energy? (New research shows that the pipeline will directly increase tar sands oil development and that tar sands will cause even more carbon pollution than previously thought).  

It would be great if, in this new Congress and this new year, our elected representatives passed the comprehensive legislation we need to preserve our safety, our health and our way of life from the dangers of climate change. But President Obama suggested yesterday that he will not let this lack of Congressional consensus stop him: “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time,” he reminded the nation. “For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay.”

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