President Obama revealed his Climate Action Plan earlier today to a crowd of students and reporters at Georgetown University. For those of us in climate activist circles, this has been a much anticipated moment, a speech that if anything exceeded expectations, although it still fell short of putting our minds at ease as we consider what the planet in 2050 and 2030 and, heck, even sooner than that, will look like.
As the President made clear, climate change is a reality: “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.” Accordingly, his Climate Action Plan includes major investments to American infrastructure, agriculture and emergency response that will help us cope with a world where even +1°C has set off some major dominoes.
In addition to these “adaption” measures that fortify America’s infrastructure against a changing climate, the President also laid out “mitigation” measures that reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted nationwide. Of these mitigation efforts (which do include strategic clean energy investments), it looks like the most significant will be establishing carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.
Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency is required to protect the American public from pollution known to be hazardous to human health. Seeing that global warming, which presents a major threat to human health (for example, by making infectious disease increasingly difficult to contain by normal geographic boundaries), is caused by carbon dioxide, the argument is that the President has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from sources such as power plants.
There may be some resistance to the regulations. After all, for some, using the Clean Air Act to control a greenhouse gas (as opposed to, say, smog) may require a new way of thinking. But the logic is sound, and the Supreme Court actually ruled as such back in 2007.
That all said — the EPA regulations and other executive actions, while bold, are far from being a full and complete solution to nip global warming at the source.
We still are unsure of the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed project to transport the incredibly dirty tar sands oil of Canada, a danger so severe that it drew 40,000 activists to Washington D.C. this February to protest its construction. Many of us were encouraged to hear that the pipeline was even mentioned in the speech — that means the President hears us — and the logic he is using to make his decision is sound: “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Knowing how horrific the tar sands will be for the climate, the only way I can imagine the Keystone XL being acceptable is if Congress passes some sort of carbon tax immediately beforehand.
While the President did mention the value of natural gas as a transition fossil fuel, there was no mention of the fracking boom for natural gas here in the Midwest, a sinister 21st-century gold rush that is recklessly extracting valuable natural gas at a rate so increasingly fast, nearly a third of it is being wasted on the spot, making it nearly as bad for atmospheric carbon levels as the other fossil fuels it supposedly is replacing.
And, at a personal level, I noticed that there was no mention of the coal lines running through Pacific Northwest, the place I consider home. Even if with new regulatory guidelines, we get our domestic coal power plant emissions under control, we potentially could still be exporting this dirty fuel source to be burned in a different place, only to enter the same atmosphere.
While the promo video for the speech led me to expect that the President would tap into religious sentiments by talking about protecting God’s creation here in America, he actually went as far as to reference Genesis — you know, God saw all that he made, which included much more than just America, and saw that is was very good.
The President accordingly deserves praise for his tact tackling of the moral ambiguity of climate change in developing countries. It is worth quoting at length:
Though all America’s carbon pollution fell last year, global carbon pollution rose to a record high. That’s a problem. Developing countries are using more and more energy, and tens of millions of people entering a global middle class naturally want to buy cars and air-conditioners of their own, just like us. Can’t blame them for that. And when you have conversations with poor countries, they’ll say, well, you went through these stages of development — why can’t we?
But what we also have to recognize is these same countries are also more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than we are. They don’t just have as much to lose, they probably have more to lose.
Developing nations with some of the fastest-rising levels of carbon pollution are going to have to take action to meet this challenge alongside us. They’re watching what we do, but we’ve got to make sure that they’re stepping up to the plate as well. We compete for business with them, but we also share a planet. And we have to all shoulder the responsibility for keeping the planet habitable, or we’re going to suffer the consequences — together.
The President is responding by establishing free trade in clean energy tech, ending public financing of the unsafest coal plants overseas, and spearheading The U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative that will unlock nearly $1 billion in clean energy financing, along with a similar project in the Asia/Pacific region that will unlock nearly $6 billion!
Nevertheless, the challenge of global warming remains severe. It certainly lacks easy or convenient political answers. It is something that any President, even with the ridiculously incredible powers of the Executive Branch of government, is able to solve by himself or (perhaps someday) herself.
In the big picture, what President Obama’s plan chalks up to is a great gift to all of us — the gift of more time.
For us, it is more time to figure out what the reality of climate change means for how we go about practicing sustainability and resilience within our own personal lifestyles, our communities, our churches, our schools, and our workplaces. For those of us who are better off financially, we need to figure out how to best stand up for the poor not simply abroad but here in America — those whose fossil-fuel-generated electricity consumption makes up bigger proportion of their tight budget, and those who live in places like the Lower Ninth Ward (devastated by lives lost in Hurricane Katrina) as compared to those who live in places like the Jersey Shore (devastated by property damage caused by Hurricane Sandy).
President Obama’s plan also means more time for the Republican Party. In the sportsball that is politics, it looks to me that it is now the GOP’s turn to respond. The ball is in their court. They can throw it out of bounds (that is, continuing the practice of climate denialism), they can just drop it (display utter apathy for anything but the status quo), pass it back to the other team and let them score (follow Obama’s leadership), or score with a trick shot of their own (suggest a market-based approach to addressing climate change, instead of a heavily regulated bureaucratic solution).
(Confession: I was a bit reluctant to use this sports metaphor. Because, in reality, shouldn’t the Democrats and Republicans be playing for same team, the same common good?)
It may be hard for any single one of us to influence the President in any profound way. Any single letter you or I send or phone call you or I make is really just a drop in a way too big bucket. But we might have a shot at influencing the Republican Party, a party that is hurting for relevancy after 2012 and has to be growing open to good ideas. If we can’t change the minds of establishment GOPers like Senators Jim Inhofe or Mitch McConnell, we can at least support our GOP state congressmen and governors as they work to implement the EPA carbon regulations in their particular state contexts.
It is worth our effort because, ultimately, the problem is not that the President is not doing enough. Even if Obama could do more on climate, and as much as I care about climate, I am not a one-issue citizen, and do not want Obama to spend all of his political capital in one place. Rather, the problem is that the country is not moving forward together on this issue. Barack Obama has done his part. Now it is time for the rest of us to figure out, in our own spheres of influence, how to follow suit.
Disclaimer: The reason I talk like I know something about climate change is because I serve as the Campaigns Assistant and a Steering Committee member for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. That said, nothing here necessarily reflects any official position of Y.E.C.A. whatsoever. Just my own thoughts that I want to contribute to public discussion.
To read other reactions from young evangelicals regarding President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, head over the Y.E.C.A. website.
Other posts on this blog where I talk about climate change: What if the church were to save the planet?, Building a Movement Stronger than the Weather, Upward Trends Got You Down? Climate, Debt and Future, Big Oil and Matthew 5:43-48, and the 5-part series the Gospel > Global Warming.