3 Ways Obama Plans to Combat Climate Change, And Save His Legacy


President Obama set foot into what many expect to be one of the major goals for his second term on Wednesday, announcing a new focus on climate change during a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

“Our dangerous carbon emissions have to come down,” the president said, “but we know we have to do more, and we will do more.” He is expected to be within weeks of unveiling a series of Executive Orders to bypass Congress in what many consider to be a potential legacy project of his — significantly reducing America’s carbon footprint over the next century, while building up an infrastructure in renewable energy.

Climate change was one of the early focuses of the 2008 campaign, and the Obama administration got off to a quick start with an Executive Order signed in October 2009 that required each federal agency to come up with a target to reduce emissions by 2020. The federal government, which has offices in over 500,000 buildings, uses 600,000 vehicles, and employs over 1.8 million civilians, is the country’s largest single energy user. But then plans stalled, much to the frustration of environmentalists, as health care quickly became the key focal point in the president’s agenda for much of the remainder of his first term.

Obama’s renewed plans are likely to take a similar form, capitalizing on the powers of the executive to enlist multiple federal agencies to enforce the new policies, with focuses in three key areas — power plants, renewables, and appliances.

1. Power Plants

It’s likely that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be called upon to enforce some of the most controversial policies, such as new carbon-emissions restrictions on new and existing power plants, including the coal-fired plants that supply the bulk of the country’s electricity.

“Going forward, obviously the EPA is going to be working very hard on rules that focus specifically on greenhouse gas emissions from the coal sector,” explains Heather Zichal, a key White House energy adviser. “They’re doing a lot of important work in that space.”

Though generally seen as a critical component of the president’s long-term energy plan, many are skeptical. “I think this is absolutely crazy,” said an exasperated House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Why would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill more Americans at a time when the American people are still asking where are the jobs? Clear enough?”

2. Renewable Energy

The president is expected to beef up American investments in sun, wind, and geothermal energy sources by tasking the Interior Department with making more public land available for renewable energy harvesting — the continuation of an early goal to increase the production of renewables by 60% between 2008 and 2012. The Interior Department had previously been tasked with producing 10 gigawatts of renewable energy on public land by the end of 2012, a goal that the department hit ahead of schedule.

The president is expected to look to the waters as well. Offshore wind farming is a practice that has become popular in Europe and abroad, only recently piquing the interest of the U.S. government, and is expected to be part of the proposal.

3. Appliances

The last key of of the president’s plan will likely be in your house. It is expected that Obama will call on the Energy Department to increase appliance efficiency standards, which could drastically cut carbon emissions and save Americans money in long-term energy costs. This would be a bit of a jumpstart to the Obama administration’s appliance efficiency record after more than eight new standards have been waylaid for months between the Department of Energy, and the White House Office of Management and Budget.

One thing that is almost certainly not going to be part of the proposal is any mention of the Keystone XL pipeline, the much-maligned future extension of the the pipe designed to transport oil sands from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Though environmental groups have been tirelessly hounding the president to block the project, which many say will increase carbon emissions and put highly sensitive environments at risk of oil spills, the issue is a divisive one, even within the president’s party. Many expect the administration to remain silent on the pipeline for fear of derailing public support for the rest of president’s measures.

“He knows that this is a legacy issue,” Heather Zichal continues, confident that Obama will make use of his powers of office to push the country forward on carbon reduction. “After all that we’ve done, after all that historic progress in the first four years, we are well-poised to take meaningful action for the second term.” 

It may be that Obama waited specifically until the second term, aware that while reducing the country’s carbon footprint is absolutely crucial in the long term, it carries with it a high potential for economic and political backlash. This issue is seen by some Republicans as an assault on business, as well as an attack on a general way of life by those liberal tree huggers, quick to turn up their noses at a gas-guzzling, tractor-pulling red state sort of lifestyle (a cultural divide that's only deepened by the fact that 22% of Americans somehow remain skeptical about climate change).

“It’s time to turn this issue from a red-state, blue-state issue,” Zichal says, “into an American issue, and frankly, that’s what I think you’ll be seeing from the president and the rest of his Cabinet — a sustained focus on depoliticizing the climate on climate policy.” This could be tricky, though. If immigration reform is any indication, Congress is far more likely to stride forward on large-scale legislation when the White House takes a back seat. Some senior Democrats have begun urging the White House to reserve the president for pushing the upcoming implementation of the Affordable Care Act, as his poll numbers continue to slide.

But Zichal seems to think this is an issue important to Obama — one that could redefine his legacy in a positive light, amidst a growing number of second-term scandals and an unsure future for Obamacare. “From a policy perspective,” she says, “if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the four and a half years in the White House, it’s not to get in front of the big guy.”