Energy & Environment

Obama’s climate legacy rests in our hands

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President Obama’s reelection in 2012 had people wondering if this time he’d get serious about climate change. After his 2013 speech at Georgetown University, a lot of environmentalists thought we had a president who was going to step up to the plate. And to his credit, he did come out swinging: Flash-forward two years and the administration has taken bold steps at home by calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies, growing our energy independence and championing regional security in response to extreme weather events. Internationally, the Obama administration has dedicated dollars to the Green Climate Fund, brought China to the negotiating table and promoted climate change as a global issue. Today, we have a final version of the Clean Power Plan.

But it is disappointing that the Clean Power Plan is being promoted as a novel climate policy.

{mosads}Of course, imposing limits on carbon dioxide emissions from our nation’s power plants is a necessary step in doing our part to keep global temperature rise under the 2 degrees Celsius cap. Nationally, the energy sector accounts for 40 percent of U.S. total emissions. With more than half of the U.S. still reliant on old world fuels such as coal and natural gas, this is the definition of low-hanging fruit. But why stop there? Commercial and residential buildings account for more than half (65 percent) of the energy consumed and a third of our carbon emissions in the U.S. We could reduce emissions and save money to the tune of $0.03 per kilowatt-hour by promoting energy efficiency. Our agricultural sector puts out 9 percent of our emissions. By promoting small organic agriculture and taking other measures, we could turn our farms into carbon sinks. 

Ken Kimmell of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) argues that even the 30 percent reduction goal from 2005 levels by the Clean Power Plan is too modest. He has calculated that we are already halfway to our goal nationally. The UCS technical report contends we can reach a 40 percent reduction in the energy sector from 2005 levels by more aggressively raising renewable targets. The administration knows this, but is more concerned with what is politically feasible rather than what is possible, let alone necessary.

If we want more, we have to push for it.

National politics has historically not been the leader in addressing climate change. So far it has been individual states, cities and communities across the country that are shifting the discussion to bold policy options. There are several states already blazing trails, such as California with its cap-and-trade program and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative states in the Northeast. At the local level, cities like Cambridge, Mass. and San Francisco are pushing to decouple economic growth and emissions by promoting net-zero policies.

The Clean Power Plan is a watered-down reaction to the bold work happening at the local level across the country. From New York City’s PlaNYC and Iowa City, Iowa’s regenerative city initiative, to even Missoula, Mont.’s Climate Smart, the urgency and energy is there for strong commitments for action. Without these, the Clean Power Plan alone is insufficient.

It’s hard to understand why strong subnational leadership continues to fail to make climate change a mainstream issue in today’s federal political discourse. But the blame should not fall on state leadership members who are taking action. We as a movement are failing to catalyze this action into a national discussion. If you look at the political landscape today, you can see that it’s dominated by interest groups, left and right. And now the reactionaries are winning the fight over federal climate policy. We can’t afford to keep losing court battles and running tail from industry interests.

It’s up to the climate movement to diversify, grow and push for more impactful policy action. It’s time to strive harder than ever for our political leadership to bring the solutions that we need to the table: Pricing pollutants such as carbon dioxide and methane, truly ending fossil fuel subsidies, and increasing incentives for renewable energy development.

The battle has just begun, and the Clean Power Plan is not going to solve climate change. Obama is taking meaningful steps in the right direction, but ultimately it’s up to us: individuals and businesses alike to push policy from the trenches. It should be clear by now that we cannot depend on the federal government to lead us out of the climate crisis. Obama is developing his climate legacy, and anything he and, more importantly, the Environmental Protection Agency can do is helpful. But we need even stronger policies in order to get us to a low carbon future. The only thing is, we have to actually drive for them.

Green is the program director for the Climate Action Business Association (CABA), a Boston-based coalition of businesses taking targeted action on climate change. As an activist, Michael has played strategic roles in several of the largest national, as well as international campaigns dedicated to fighting climate change. Since 2012, he has served as a representative to the United Nations focusing on international climate science and policy. He also serves as the chairman for the ASBC’s Committee on Energy and Environmental Policy.

Tags Clean Power Plan Climate change Environmental Protection Agency EPA Global warming

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