This Is What Climate Leadership Looks Like
Today President Obama laid out his second term climate plan in a major speech at Georgetown University. I was thrilled to be here for this historic event.
The president confronts many threats that appear more urgent, but none are more important to his legacy.
Today’s speech builds on previous statements from the president with a specific plan of action for federal agencies to use their authority under existing law to reduce dangerous carbon pollution.
In his second inaugural speech President Obama said “we will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” He followed that up in his 2013 State of the Union address by saying “But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
It’s been four months since then and it is obvious by now (if it wasn’t already) that Congress is not going to act. So the president is doing exactly what he said he would do by directing his cabinet to take those executive actions. Importantly, the president will issue a memorandum with a specific schedule to make sure that EPA finalizes carbon pollution standards for power plants—the heart of his plan—before he leaves office. This is the same mechanism the president used to ensure that the historic the clean car standards were established during his first term.
The president also set a clear benchmark for his administration: make sure that the measures in the plan add up to reducing total greenhouse gases 17 percent by 2020. This is the target President Obama committed the United States to during his first term and he reaffirmed it today. That’s important because it makes clear that the agencies can’t be “lackluster” in their implementation; only a “go-getter” approach can get us there, as the World Resources Institute has shown.
Power plants are America’s biggest global warming polluters, and the centerpiece of today’s plan is a directive to EPA to finalize the standard for new plants and issue standards for the 1500 operating fossil fuel plants that are currently allowed to dump unlimited amounts of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. The president also called for increasing the efficiency of trucks and appliances and cutting emissions of HFCs and methane, two pollutants that pound-for-pound trap even more heat than carbon dioxide, particularly in the short term.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the Clean Air Act covers carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and EPA determined in 2009 that these pollutants endanger public health and welfare. For more than 40 years the Clean Air Act has been used successfully to reduce emissions of sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury, with benefits for Americans’ health that far exceed the costs. Yet there are currently no national limits on the amount of carbon dioxide that power plants can pump into the air.
EPA is required to set power plant carbon dioxide pollution standards under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act. NRDC has shown that smart standards could cut carbon pollution from America's power plants by more than a quarter by 2020, slashing health, economic, and environmental damages by $26 to $60 billion per year by saving lives, preventing illnesses, and reducing climate change, for a cost of about $4 billion per year. And doing so would boost investments in new technologies and clean energy, putting Americans to work.
Most importantly, the president’s plan is the right thing to do. For the health of our families, our communities, and our planet we desperately need climate leadership. Today, that’s just what President Obama delivered.
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