State of the Union addresses are wearying rituals, in which stitched-together lists of never-gonna-happen goals are woven into idealistic catchphrases, analyzed as rhetoric by an unqualified panel of poetry-critic-for-a-night political reporters, quickly followed by a hapless opposition-party response, and then, in almost every case, forgotten. This year, plunked into the midst of the tedium was a gigantic revelation, almost surely the most momentous news of President Obama’s second term. “I will direct my Cabinet,” he announced, “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.”
Here was a genuine bombshell. It sounded a little vague, and the president did not explain precisely what he intended to do or how he would pull it off. But a handful of environmental wonks had a fairly strong grasp of the project he had committed himself to, and they understood that it was very, very real and very, very doable. If they were to have summarized the news, the headline would have been OBAMA TO SAVE PLANET.
Few outside the green community grasped the meaning of the revelation, and it sank beneath the surface with barely a ripple as bored reporters quickly turned to other matters. Several elements of the Obama agenda—immigration reform, gun control, the budget wars—have since churned busily away in plain view, while his climate pledge has generated no visible action. (Which, as we’ll see, may be just how the administration wants it.)
More than anything, though, Obama’s announcement was shrouded in the pervasive miasma of failure, the stench of too little, too late, that has surrounded his climate agenda. Obama’s election “was accompanied by intense hope that many things in need of change would change,” lamented Al Gore in a 2011 Rolling Stone essay. “Some things have, but others have not. Climate policy, unfortunately, is in the second category.” Matters appear only to have gotten worse since then, especially as climate activists chain themselves to the White House gate to protest the president’s likely approval of the Keystone pipeline. Obama himself has taken an apologetic tone, telling green-minded donors that the politics “are tough,” as people “struggling to get by” care more about providing for their immediate needs than forestalling long-term environmental degradation and climate change.
The New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann recently wrote a eulogy for the environmental movement, using the 2010 disintegration of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress as the culmination of failure. “The movement had poured years of effort into the bill, which involved a complicated system for limiting carbon emissions. Now it was dead, and there has been no significant environmental legislation since,” he wrote. “Indeed, one could argue that there has been no major environmental legislation since 1990 … What went wrong?”
The pervasive “what went wrong?” narrative contains a series of assumptions: that Obama can prevail only by winning over public opinion and Congress, that the fate of his climate policy hinged on the cap-and-trade bill, and that the primary question hanging over his environmental record is how to apportion blame. None of these assumptions is correct.
The assumption that Obama’s climate-change record is essentially one of failure is mainly an artifact of environmentalists’ understandably frantic urgency. The sort of steady progress that would leave activists on other issues giddy does not satisfy the sort of person whose waking hours are spent watching the glaciers melt irreversibly. But there is a difference between failing to do anything and failing to do enough, and even those who criticize the president’s efforts as inadequate ought to be clear-eyed about what has been accomplished. By the normal standards of progress, Obama has amassed an impressive record so far on climate change.
There are two basic ways to measure this, which must be taken together. The first, and simplest, is to ask: How much carbon are we emitting into the atmosphere? In the first year of Obama’s presidency, the United State pledged that by 2020 it would reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 17 percent (starting from the level set in 2005). That 17 percent reduction is the brass ring of the environmental movement. It is the target the cap-and-trade legislation was designed to hit. It is also the target that Obama must be able to claim he is on track to reach by the time of the next international climate summit in 2015. That occasion, most observers agree, will probably be the world’s last chance to sign an accord that averts catastrophically and permanently higher temperatures.
As it happens, after decades of rising, carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States started falling in 2008. They have kept falling. By the end of last year, emissions had fallen almost 12 percent below the 2005 level. That is to say, with 12 percent of the 17 percent drop having already occurred, and seven more years to go until the target date, the U.S. is two-thirds of the way to its environmental goal after just one-third of the time has passed. If you follow this measure, climate policy looks like a runaway success.