Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016:  Obama's Climate Legacy Marked by Triumphs and Lost Opportunities

By relying on executive orders and regulations after his legislative majority disappeared, President Obama leaves his climate policies at risk under Donald Trump.

President Obama, touring Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park in September, used his second term to address climate change, largely through executive action and regulations. (Credit: Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
For all of President Barack Obama's sweeping and historic achievements on climate change, most have come in a last rush of momentum in the final years of his second term.  What they overshadow is that his greatest opportunity to reshape how the U.S. deals with what he called the greatest threat to future generations may have come in his first term, and it was lost to the pull of other priorities.

Obama had Democratic majorities in Congress during his first two years in office, and failing to press for national climate legislation during that time turned into perhaps his greatest strategic miscalculation, according to climate experts and advocates.

"The first term was essentially lost territory," said Daniel Kammen, founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.  "The second term was a totally different story."

Obama had promised "a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change," but when he took office, he was facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  His priorities were saving major American industries, restoring faith in the economy and stemming spiraling unemployment.  The Recovery Act, the bailout of the auto industry, and the Wall Street reform act, Dodd-Frank, were at the top of the agenda Obama's team pushed for, followed by health care reform.

Had the White House pushed for a comprehensive national climate plan early, it could have given Obama's climate agenda legislative backing, making it much harder for his successor to undo.  A cap-and-trade bill, Waxman-Markey, based heavily on a proposal by a coalition of industry and environmental groups, had squeaked through the House in 2009.  But after its Republican backers in the Senate got cold feet, Obama rallied no support behind it and it fizzled there.  Obama never developed his own legislation proposal to replace it.
A Second, Climate-Action-Filled Term
Obama began his second term with a note of defiance against the forces aligned against climate action.

"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," he said in his second inaugural address before hundreds of thousands of people, tying the climate fight to the enduring struggles for equality and justice.

He unveiled his climate initiative on a hot June day on Georgetown University's campus, literally rolling up his shirtsleeves as he spoke.  "The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late," he said.  "I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing."

Obama's EPA moved on in his second term to tackling truck emissions, reining in methane leaks from the oil and gas industry and updating energy efficiency standards for home appliances.  Obama established 23 national monuments, more than any other president in history, including the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument in Hawaii, an ocean reserve twice the size of Texas.

The U.S. delegation also led the effort to amend an international agreement to reduce the highly potent greenhouse gases used in refrigeration, hydrofluorocarbons.  That one agreement will negate the equivalent of 10 years of U.S. emissions.

Obama used a "thousand small hammers" to fashion a U.S. climate policy without the help of Congress, in the words of David Victor, director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at University of California, San Diego.

"Frankly, I think that's probably pretty good news, because there's going to be such an effort to roll it back," Victor said.  "Having dozens of things, not all of which are going to be rolled back, is better than having one or two prime targets."
Obama's mixed climate legacy is reflected in statistics.  U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from energy fell by 9.5 percent from 2008-2015, and in the first six months of 2016, were at their lowest level in 25 years, according to a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisors.  Improving vehicle fuel economy and expansion of renewable energy is partly the reason.  (The U.S. tripled its wind-generated electricity and gets 30 times as much from solar as it did in 2008.)  But the move from coal to newly abundant natural gas played a major role.

Under Obama, natural gas production, flat for the decade before he took office, rose 28 percent.  U.S. oil production has soared 76 percent.  On Obama's watch, the United States surpassed Russia in gas production and Saudi Arabia in oil production.

Read more at 2016:  Obama's Climate Legacy Marked by Triumphs and Lost Opportunities

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