It’s hard to downplay the significance of former Vice President Al Gore’s recent criticism against President Obama for the latter's inaction on global warming. For one, Gore was speaking to the New York League of Conservation Voters —environmentalists representing one of the states devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
For another, Gore was also presenting before Mayor Bloomberg who publicly endorsed Obama’s re-election specifically because the president is concerned about global warming and Romney is a skeptic.
But being concerned isn’t enough, and Gore argued that Obama needed more action behind his words, “We cannot have four more years of mentioning this occasionally and saying it’s too bad that Congress can’t act.” Is Gore’s criticism fair? Mostly.
What did Obama succeed in doing?
In May 2009, the Obama Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to 34.5 miles per gallon by 2016. This was an historic and much needed increase. It was the first time since CAFE standards were created that there was an increase in car fuel efficiency in the U.S. In addition to saving 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the course of the program, it’s projected to prevent 900 million metric tons of carbon from being released through cars and light trucks.
In December 2009, Obama delivered an earnest eight-minute speech before the international community in Copenhagen partially accepting the U.S.’s role in creating the carbon crisis and acknowledging its need as the second-largest carbon emitter in the world to take the lead in solving the problem.
In August 2012, Obama finalized an agreement with thirteen of the largest automakers (90% of all cars sold in the U.S.) to further raise CAFE standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025. Over the life of the program, its projected to save 12 billion barrels of oil and prevent 6 billion metric tons of carbon from being releases through cars and light trucks.
What were Obama’s biggest failures?
The 2009 Waxman-Markey climate bill would have setup a national cap-and-trade system to permanently reduce the U.S.'s carbon footprint. California had already passed its own statewide cap-and-trade system in 2006. Even with that precedent and Democrats controlling of the House and Senate, the bill was perceived as bold and controversial and barely received enough votes to pass in the House. Republicans and conservative Democrats stalled it in the Sentate. During that time, Obama publicly praised the bill but was unwilling to spend very much of his political capital to help get enough votes for the bill to pass.
Despite his speech in Copenhagen, no accord was reached and the summit ended without any new action being taken. For his part, Obama offered $100 billion in mitigation funding by 2020, but that was only if China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, would agree to broader reduction targets. Unless China was willing to agree, Obama was not willing to agree to the U.S. making any sacrifices of its own.
Obama succeeded when his administration was able to act on its own, yet when decisions were dependent on legislative bodies (be it congressional or international) Obama failed to act.
This should leave anyone concerned about global warming on edge. With the next term likely to see a new energy policy —as the U.S. prepares to sell natural gas abroad and consider regulations on fracking— a must-pass farm bill that largely determines agriculture’s impact on global warming, and the oil lobby beginning their push for more rights to drill in the Arctic and beyond, Congress will have a huge hand to play and Obama will need to work with them.
So if Obama remains as passive to them in his second term as he was in his first, any hope for seriously tackling global warming in the second term may be in jeopardy. The Obama adminstration cannot stop global warming on its own.