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.
This metric isn’t entirely fair, of course, because most, though not all, of this drop occurred for reasons having nothing to do with Obama. About half of the emissions drop can probably be attributed to the recession. (When people cut back on their spending, they do less driving, don’t run the air conditioner as high, and so on.) Another portion of the decline occurred because the fracking boom flooded the market with cheap natural gas, which replaced much dirtier coal. These trends will probably level off, as the price of natural gas has plunged so quickly drillers have already scaled back their production. Still, even if the progress was temporary and mainly a result of luck, it has provided Obama with breathing room that most observers haven’t been willing to grant him.
The second way to measure Obama’s climate-change record is: What has he done? He has done quite a bit, probably far more than you think, and not all of it advertised as climate legislation, or advertised as much of anything at all. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was many things—primarily, a desperate bid to shove money into enough Americans’ pockets to prevent another Great Depression—but one of them was a major piece of environmental reform. The law contained upwards of $90 billion in subsidies for green energy, which had a catalyzing effect on burgeoning industries. American wind-power generation has doubled, and solar power has increased more than six times over. As Time magazine’s Michael Grunwald detailed in his book The New New Deal, the new law suddenly transformed the Department of Energy, previously a sclerotic backwater charged mainly with overseeing the nuclear-weapons cache, into a massive new engine of cutting-edge environmental science.
The stimulus had the misfortune of absorbing the brunt of the public’s dismay with the economic crisis, and Republicans successfully turned Solyndra, an anomalous case of a green-energy subsidy that went bust, into a symbol that rendered the whole law so unpopular Democrats quickly grew afraid to tout it. Even a close observer like Lemann has forgotten that it was indeed “major environmental legislation.” And yet, the wave of innovation—new fuels, plus turbines, energy meters, and other futuristic devices—will reverberate for years. Envia Systems, a stimulus-financed clean-energy firm in Silicon Valley, has developed technology for electric-car batteries three times as efficient as the technology in the Volt, capable of shaving $5,000 off the sticker price of an electric car when it comes to market in 2015. Just a few weeks ago, the Times reported on a new stimulus-financed research project to increase the energy content (and thus reduce the emissions) of natural gas.
The administration has also carried out an ambitious program of regulation, having imposed or announced higher standards for gas mileage in cars, fuel cleanliness, energy efficiency in appliances, and emissions from new power plants. In aggregate, they amount to a major assault on climate change. Some environmentalists judge them to be insufficient—a fair critique—but many more Obama supporters aren’t even aware that they exist. This is likely because none of these regulations produced any political theater. There was no legislation, no ponderous Sunday-morning talk-show chin-scratching, no dramatic wrangling of votes on the House floor. Just the issuing of a new regulation, a smallish one-day story.
Last August, for instance, the administration announced it was ratcheting up vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, from 29.7 miles per gallon to 54.5 miles per gallon. The news barely got a day of coverage, coming as it did during the first day of the Republican National Convention. About six weeks ago, the administration announced new standards for cleaner gasoline. “There is not another air-pollution-control strategy that we know of that will produce as substantial, cost-effective, and expeditious emissions reductions,” cooed the executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Remember that?
The political theater has instead played itself out in two episodes in which Obama has appeared impotent, or even indifferent, in the face of climate change. Currently, we are in the midst of the drama over the proposed Keystone pipeline, which Obama has hinted he will approve. nasa scientist James Hansen has proclaimed the pipeline, which would carry oil from the Canadian tar sands, “game over” for the climate. Most analysts, though, don’t support Hansen’s apocalyptic view. A survey of studies conducted by the Congressional Research Service found that the pipeline would increase carbon emissions by anywhere from 0.06 percent to 0.3 percent per year. (Note that emissions dropped 3.7 percent—twelve times the high-end estimate—last year.) Wonkblog reporter Brad Plumer called the pipeline “a slight step in the opposite direction” of meeting Obama’s climate goals. The pipeline’s outsize role in the presidential campaign, and the noisy protests it inspires, have elevated it far beyond the scale of more consequential environmental decisions.
The central environmental drama of the Obama years was the failure of the cap-and-trade bill in 2010. Both Obama and the environmentalists had invested all their soaring hopes in that bill. Its failure, a months-long slow bleed of wavering coal-state Democrats and hardening Republican intransigence, amounted to a kind of psychological torture for environmentalists. Cap-and-trade’s demise came to emblematize environmental policy in the Obama era. Ryan Lizza, in a lengthy 2010 New Yorker reportorial narrative, tabbed it “perhaps the last best chance to deal with global warming in the Obama era.”
It was not the last best chance to deal with global warming in the Obama era. There is one more.
On December 31, 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. The dispatches from that era feel unfathomably remote. The law passed Congress with Pearl Harbor war-resolution levels of support: In the House, 374 members favored it, with just one Nebraska Republican opposed. The Senate passed it 73-0. “Anti-pollution laws,” explained the Times, “did not excite political rivalry.” The law embodied a sweeping brand of environmental absolutism that would make Al Gore blush. It mandated that power plants use the best available technology, with no apparent thought given to the cost.
Obviously, nothing remotely like such a law could pass either chamber today. (Even Democrats favor more-cautious approaches to limiting pollution.) But the four-decade-old law has gained a new relevance to the climate crisis through a cascading, often dramatic series of recent events. The law requires the EPA to regulate “air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” Scientists at the time did not recognize that carbon dioxide contributed to global warming; they were more concerned with the human health effects of carbon monoxide and other chemicals. But as the scientific case for climate change hardened, environmentalists filed suit to force the EPA to regulate carbon emissions like other pollutants. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in the environmentalists’ favor. In 2008, the agency officially deemed carbon dioxide a pollutant, and sent its finding to the White House. The Bush administration refused to open the e-mail, thus, incredibly, running out the clock on any legal obligation.
The coming of the Obama administration, with its greater affinity for opening e-mails and lower affinity for fossil-fuel industries, resolved the question of whether Washington had an obligation to regulate carbon emissions. After Obama’s original cap-and-trade plan failed, he started using the agency regulatory powers directly. (This is how Obama has been able to issue new regulations on cars, fuel, appliances, and future power plants.)
So far, there is one hole in his regulatory agenda: power plants that currently exist. This is, unfortunately, a very large hole, as these plants, mostly coal, emit 40 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions. Coal is so inherently dirty that no available technology can prevent a plant from emitting unacceptable levels of greenhouse gases. You can require more-efficient cars or more-efficient refrigerators, and the industry will respond. You can’t really require coal plants to be anything more than slightly cleaner; it’s just physically impossible. The only meaningful standard one could impose for a coal plant would result in all of America’s coal plants shutting down—which, even if phased in slowly, would carry large costs and likely provoke a revolt from people suddenly staring at huge electric bills. The EPA’s choice, as environmental writer David Roberts has put it, appears to be “either a firecracker or a nuke.”
During Obama’s first term, the nuke was useful, as nukes tend to be, only as a threat. The idea was so abhorrent to power companies and some Republicans that it brought them to the bargaining table during the cap-and-trade negotiations. When negotiations collapsed, the prevailing assumption was that the ability to regulate existing plants had become a useless tool, paradoxically too powerful to actually deploy.
Then, a few weeks after last year’s election, the Natural Resources Defense Council published a plan for the EPA to regulate existing power plants in a way that was neither ineffectual nor draconian. The proposal would set state-by-state limits on emissions. It sounds simple, but this was a conceptual breakthrough. Much like a cap-and-trade bill, it would allow market signals to indicate the most efficient ways for states to hit their targets—instead of shutting coal plants down, some utilities might pay consumers to weatherize their homes, while others might switch some of their generators over to cleaner fuels. The flexibility of the scheme would, in turn, reduce the costs passed on to consumers. Here is a way for Obama to use his powers—his own powers, unencumbered by the morass of a dysfunctional Congress—in such a way that is neither as ineffectual as a firecracker nor as devastating as a nuke: The NRDC calculates its plan would reduce our reliance on coal by about a quarter and national carbon emissions by 10 percent.
This is the last best chance to deal with global warming in the Obama era. The prospect, for environmentalists, is exhilarating but also harrowing. The struggle will be lengthy, waged largely behind closed doors, and its outcome won’t be known until the Obama presidency is nearly over.
In the second week of April, the acting administrator of the EPA told reporters that a state-based plan to regulate existing power plants—that is, something like the Natural Resources Defense Council plan—is “certainly something that will be on the table in this next fiscal year.” That was a gaffe. Officially, the Obama administration has no such plan, and the agency issued a quick official correction, a masterpiece of the passive voice: “To assert that any decision on any additional action has been made would be incorrect.”
The official administration line holds that Congress should pass a cap-and-trade law. In his State of the Union address, Obama prefaced his threat of executive action with a conditional “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” The if is obviously preordained—no possible scenario, not even if John Boehner were ordered to pass a cap-and-trade bill by a returning Jesus Christ, bearing legislative text, could result in Congress’s passing a cap-and-trade law.
And within the environmental world, it is essentially a given that Obama will enact some version of the NRDC plan. Dan Lashof, its lead author, told me, “We are hearing that they’re looking quite seriously at our proposal.” A “person familiar with the matter” told the Wall Street Journal, “You will ultimately see a proposal from EPA to regulate existing power plants.” A group of electric utilities has already circulated a paper predicting that the EPA will do just that.
New regulations would have to withstand a certain legal challenge from the energy industry—though, crucially, implementation would not have to wait as cases wind their way through the courts. The EPA’s authority has withstood several high-profile challenges before, because the law is so broadly written; on the other hand, the challenges to Obamacare remind us that precedent cannot fully predict the behavior of agitated conservative judges. Also like the Obamacare challenge, the legal fight will play out against the backdrop of political war. Republicans in Congress have proposed barring the EPA from using its powers—in Senator James Inhofe’s formulation, “Put Congress, not unaccountable bureaucrats, in charge of deciding the nation’s energy policy.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page has described Obama’s threat to regulate carbon emissions as something akin to the action of a “dictator.”
So the administration and its allies have been mobilizing for combat. It’s not insignificant that Obama chose Denis McDonough, who has a deep background in climate change, to be his second-term chief of staff, or that he promoted Gina McCarthy, who oversaw the rewriting of EPA regulations in his first term, to run the department. Democratic Senators are vowing to block any House Republican attempt to handcuff the EPA. Working in Obama’s favor is the fact that Americans, while disturbingly blasé about climate change, favor federal regulation of greenhouse gases by huge majorities.
Lashof predicted the following sequence of events. The agency will finish drafting its regulation scheme by the end of the year. It will then take about a year of public comments and revisions, at which point it will finalize its rule. That will be the end of 2014, just after the midterm elections. Another nine months to a year will be required to carry out the rule, which will get us to the end of 2015—and the international climate summit.
The administration’s refusal to publicly commit itself to this strategy, just as it risks losing supporters over the Keystone decision, is in some ways an odd political choice. But it makes sense as a strategy to win the inevitable conflict. The charade of asking Congress to pass new climate legislation demonstrates to the public—and to the courts, inevitably—that the administration is not trying to usurp Congress’s role and will take action on its own only as a final resort.
The timing of a drawn-out regulatory process also dovetails with the progression of Obama’s second-term agenda. The administration needs to cooperate with Republicans to pass immigration reform and harbors at least faint hopes for a budget accord. A muscular exercise of administrative power over environmental policy may reignite the raging anti-government paranoia that made any bipartisan cooperation impossible during Obama’s first term. Far more sensible to pass whatever laws can be passed first.
One also gets the sense, though, that even if Obama shouted his regulatory plans from the rafters, it wouldn’t do much to change the narrative. Outside the narrow energy-and-environment community, few major national reporters or pundits have keyed in to Obama’s strategy. They habitually equate progress with the passage of laws, and the absence of a legislative agenda means the lack of any agenda at all. “Many took note of Mr. Obama’s promise to tackle global warming in his inaugural address,” Edward Luce wrote mournfully in the Financial Times last week. “That was the last anyone heard of it.” The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza is typical: “[G]iven the fraught politics around doing anything major on the issue … it seems likely that Obama will go small-bore rather than major overhaul if he wants to get something through Congress.” Note the assumption that doing anything major requires getting it through Congress.
Senator Barbara Boxer, the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, chided reporters earlier this year: “A lot of you press me … on: ‘Where is the bill on climate change? Where is the bill?’ There doesn’t have to be a bill.” She’s right. We don’t need a law, because Richard Nixon and his Congress, filled with what we today would call environmental wackos, already passed it 40 years ago.
All the myths of the presidency we cling to are perfectly useless here. The heavy lifting will be, by conventional political terms, invisible. There is no need for Johnsonian arm-twisting or Sorkin-esque rhetorical uplift. The fight of Obama’s second presidential term—the much-mocked fight to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet—requires only the simple exercise of power.