Tackling Climate Change in Obama's Second Term
*photo from flickr
As the nation celebrates Barack Obama's inauguration into his second term in office as President of the United States of America, questions are arising about his willingness to tackle the global challenge of climate change. His emphasis on an 'all-of-the-above' energy plan and clean coal while pointing towards our need to free ourselves from the tyranny of oil and avoid the impact of rising seas is enough to make anyone's head spin from the contradictions.
And then – as always – the question remains: does Obama have the power, as President, to take meaningful action on climate change? For the purposes of this post, let's assume that at least part of tackling climate change involves the federal government. Here are a few areas in which Obama might find (or lose) power in his second term.
Shifts in his Cabinet
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who has a mixed environmental record, is stepping down. His spot is unlikely to be filled by anyone strongly opposed to drilling, but it's unlikely that Obama will nominate someone enthusiastic to usher in huge shifts in the treatment of public lands.
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is also resigning, paving the way for nominee John Kerry. Kerry has a good environmental record and his nomination is most likely good news for the demise of the Keystone XL. However, the KXL fight is far from over: the decision is likely to fall solely into Obama's hands and he is giving mixed signals about his course forward. (Confused about why the pipeline is bad? Here's a quick overview).
The Environmental Protection Agency
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced her resignation among rumors that Obama was going to green light the Keystone XL. Without Jackson, a strong advocate for environmental justice who managed to push through several policy 'firsts,' the EPA could be drastically weakened. However, Obama can send a strong signal about his stance on environmental policy in his second term with his new nomination.
So long as Congress remains in gridlock, the EPA is one of the few places where meaningful federal action to address environmental challenges can occur. In the past four years, the EPA under Lisa Jackson has declared carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act (the endangerement finding), introduced new soot and mercury standards, and new vehicle standards. (Here, PBS takes a look at Jackson's term).
The endangerment finding in particular paves the way for more regulation of power plants and other emitters in the name of curbing dangerous emissions.
Though the idea of a carbon tax has been thrown around lately, a new report by Theda Skocpol details the challenges faced by environmental groups who want Congress to pass any kind of climate legislation. Analysts have pointed out that any climate legislation would have to be a bipartisan deal, because many blue dog democrats (i.e. those in high fossil-fuel producing states) are unlikely to vote for anything that puts a cost on carbon extraction or emissions. (A good summary of the Skocpol report can be found here).
Though Obama faces the challenges of an uncompromising Congress, he has plenty of chances to make bold environmental statements in his second term. He has the power to nominate strong environmental leaders to at least three key positions and many platforms, including the upcoming State of the Union, from which to outline plans and encourage the nation to move forward on climate change. Ultimately, Obama's climate legacy will be dependent not on Congress or his nominations but on the actions he himself takes to make sure he leaves behind a liveable planet for future generations.