Obama Climate Change Speech

After promising to make climate change a top priority in his second term, President Obama has finally rolled out his new plan for action. 

With Congress unable to pass anything substantive on climate change -- let alone admit that it's a problem -- Obama explained in his recent State of the Union address that he would do as much as possible with his executive authority. After a period of silence on what executive actions the president might take, the White House released an official plan of action this morning. 

Speaking at Georgetown University this afternoon, Obama outlined his executive strategy for reducing carbon pollution, which he hoped would put pressure on lawmakers to adopt a market-based approach.

“I still want to see that happen. I’m willing to work with anyone to make that happen. But this is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock," said Obama in his speech.

The "plan" is mostly made up of initiatives already underway within the administration that have been re-packaged for an official roll-out. Much of the document lacks specific targets, and instead relies on a long list of task forces and presidential memorandums directing various agencies to consider climate change. Some pieces that require new spending also depend on budget requests for fiscal year 2014, which are likely not to get fully funded by Congress.

Even the biggest piece of the White House plan -- Environmental Protection Agency regulation of carbon emissions from new and existing power plants -- has already been in the works for years. And the administration has already missed numerous deadlines for implementing those regulations. According to the White House documents, President Obama has issued a new memo to the EPA officials asking them to speed up the process, which he hopes to complete before ending his second term.

While much of the president's climate action plan is not exactly new, it does highlight the enormous number of executive actions in the works and ties them together into a coherent package.

"It attempts to systematically mobilize all the tools of the executive branch to rapidly deploy clean energy solutions and more modern and resilient infrastructure," said Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress (CAP). "It advances very concrete, measurable, and immediate steps. It builds on what's working, and it focuses the nation's attention on how to move forward together without delay using all the tools at our disposal."

So what are the most interesting tools the president has created? Most of the attention will be focused on EPA regulation of power-sector CO2 emissions. But there are a handful of new polices in the plan (some built on existing efforts) that could have a big impact. Here are five of them.

1. Doubling renewable energy by 2020

U.S. renewable electricity production doubled during Obama's first four years in office. The president now says he wants to double renewable electricity again through a suite of new policies.

The first is a goal to issue permits for 10 gigawatts of renewable energy projects on public lands by 2020 through the Interior Department -- doubling the number of permits already issued. Along with speeding up permits on public lands, the administration also wants to expedite permitting for incremental hydro projects on existing dams. Finally, the plan calls for 100 megawatts of installed renewable energy capacity on federally-subsidized housing by 2020 and a 20 percent renewable procurement target for federal buildings by that date. Considering that the federal government is the largest property owner in the country, these are all new goals that will add substantial capacity.

“I believe Americans build things better than anyone else. I want to win that race. But we can’t win it if we aren’t in it," said Obama today.

2. Establishing strong new goals for energy efficiency 

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama announced that he would attempt to double U.S. energy efficiency by 2030. This latest plan of action puts some pieces in place to start accomplishing that goal. 

"Our federal government must lead by example," said Obama in today's speech. "Wasting less energy...is where we need to go."

The first is a new efficiency target for appliance standards and federal buildings. The president wants to tighten standards in both sectors to cut CO2 emissions by 3 billion metric tons by 2030, which translates to about half of yearly energy-sector carbon emissions. The second is a $250 million package through the Department of Agriculture to help rural utilities implement energy efficiency programs. Thirdly, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will provide another $23 million for affordable housing efficiency programs. The president will also seek to expand the Better Buildings Challenge for multi-family housing, work to increase energy data transparency through the Green Button Initiative and work with agencies to synchronize building codes.

CAP's Hendricks, who focuses heavily on efficiency deployment through the Clinton Global Initiative, said these pieces added up to a strong piece of the plan.

"In recent years, building energy efficiency has been a quiet success story. This plan builds on many of the tools that have worked," he said.

3. Launching a climate data initiative

Expanding on previous efforts to bring transparency to energy data, the administration wants to create databases for the latest climate science. Under the president's recent executive order on open data, the administration will establish an open platform for anyone to access climate science and understand how the government makes decisions on the issue.

In addition, the The Global Change Research Program will create new tools for risk modeling and the National Climate Assessment will include actionable information for local decision makers. Finally, federal agencies will be directed to create climate-resilience tool kits to centralize all the best practices on climate adaptation and mitigation. In combination, these tools could create the most comprehensive, transparent database of climate information ever created.

Obama said today that these databases will be set up to “make sure that cities and state assess risk under different climate scenarios so we don’t waste money on projects that don’t withstand the next storm.”

4. Stopping the public financing of international coal projects

The Export-Import Bank, which the president has authority over, has come under fire from environmental groups for financing coal plants in less-developed countries. The new Obama plan addresses those criticisms by stopping the practice. The administration wants to work with international development organizations like the World Bank to adopt these policies as well.

"Today I'm calling for an end to public financing for new coal plants overseas. And I urge other countries to join this effort," said Obama in his speech.

The new policy does leave some wiggle room, however. The government will still support projects featuring high-efficiency technologies if "no other economically feasible alternative exists" or that utilize carbon capture technologies. Although this language provides a loophole for the administration, it does represent a new policy that could have major implications for American activities in overseas energy development.

"It puts an end to the false trade-off that energy access and development must be gained at the expense of public health and our climate. Ultimately it is a very big step forward for U.S. leadership in clean energy and for that President Obama should be applauded," said Justin Guay, head of the Sierra Club's international program.

As a compliment to this new policy, Obama is also calling for new free-trade negotiations for environmental goods in order to break down trade barriers among countries.

5. Potentially avoiding construction of Keystone XL 

The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not an official part of the president's climate plan. But in his speech today, Obama said he would ask the State Department to reject the pipeline if it resulted in a net increase in CO2 emissions. This is the first time that the president has made any official declaration on the pipeline. 

"I do want to be clear. Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that it's in our interest. Our national interest will be served only if this project does not exacerbate our carbon pollution. The net effects of climate pollution will be critical in determining if this project goes forward. It’s relevant," said Obama.

Determining the net impact for emissions from Keystone XL offers more wiggle room for the president, as the State Department previously concluded that the Keystone XL pipeline would bring no major climate impacts. Environmental groups have disputed those findings. While up for interpretation, Obama's words added an interesting twist to the two-year political saga over Keystone XL.

The climate plan announced today is a way for the Obama administration to put pressure on Congress, show Americans what it is already doing and prove to the international community that the U.S. is moving forward.

"This should send a strong message to the world that America intends to take bold action to reduce carbon pollution," said Obama.

Although the plan featured a lot of old programs in a new package, supporters of the president backed him up on the substance of the plan.

"Each of these actions is a win. But together they become something more -- elevating the individual policy measures that have characterized this administration's approach to clean energy into a single overarching framework to help guide the federal government in making progress on climate and energy," said Bracken Hendricks.

Photo Credit: Obama Speech/shutterstock

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