“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing. And that’s why today I’m announcing a new national climate action plan, and I’m here to enlist your generation’s help in keeping the United States of America a leader, a global leader in the fight against climate change.”

- President Barack Obama, 6/25/2013

President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University yesterday. (image source: whitehouse.gov)

President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University yesterday. (image source: whitehouse.gov)

Climate change policy is back on the political agenda.  In a powerful speech at Georgetown University yesterday, President Barack Obama found the right words for the scale and urgency of the climate problem. He announced a Climate Action Plan outlining a wide array of actions his administration will take to reduce harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, expand renewable energy, increase energy efficiency, and strengthen America’s resilience to climate impacts. Throughout the speech, President Obama struck down critics’ claims, which have been bolstered by wealthy special interest groups, that climate protection poses a threat to the country’s economy. If implemented promptly, the plan can lead to much needed reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and re-engage the United States with other climate leaders in the international community.

However, the plan also reinforces the President’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, which is at odds with the necessity for swift and significant emission reductions to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. President Obama yesterday restated his pledge to reduce U.S. GHG emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 – an insufficient target given the urgency of the climate crisis and the scale of the U.S. contribution to global emissions on an absolute, historical, and per capita basis.

Perhaps the most important policy announcement in the President’s climate action plan is a memorandum directing the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards by 2015 to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first proposed carbon standards for new power plants over a year ago that would effectively halt the construction of new coal plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Although the shale gas boom has already made it unlikely that new coal plants would be built anyway, the proposed regulation would nevertheless be an important step toward passing carbon standards for existing power plants that could accelerate the phase-out of coal power.

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carbon standard, CCS, Climate Change, Climate Policy, coal, greenhouse gas emissions, Keystone XL, nuclear power, President Obama, renewable energy, shale gas
Standing in front of the Capitol, President Obama focused on climate change and energy as critical issues for his second term in office. (Photo Credit: Reese Rogers)

President Obama’s decision to make climate change and energy a centerpiece of his Inaugural Address has taken political analysts and partisans on both sides of the issue by surprise. Of the half dozen specific issues raised in the speech, only the economy, foreign affairs, and the social safety net had as many words devoted to them.

Why would a President who has recently made only glancing reference to climate change double-down on one of the most contentious issues of his first Administration?  A second failure on climate would go down as a signature feature of the Obama legacy—and not a positive one.

Hurricane Sandy and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s clarion call on climate change just days before the 2012 election were undoubtedly part of the reason for the President’s decision.  But the speech itself provides a deeper explanation.  With his young daughters standing a few feet away, Obama declared that failure to respond to the threat of climate change “would betray our children and future generations.”  No President has ever faced an issue whose consequences will last so long.  Historians a century now could see it as his most tragic legacy.

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To use an analogy from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, renewable energy in the United States will be confronted by the ghosts of past, present, and future. When the Republican Party took control of the U.S. House of Representatives last month, many renewable energy advocates assumed that any progressive energy legislation would be tabled for at least the next two years. But a growing camp now believes that a Republican majority in Congress may actually increase the likelihood of passing meaningful federal energy policy.

Cannon House Office Building

Cannon House Office Building, where ACORE holds its annual Phase II conference - Flickr Creative Commons / cliff1066™

It was with this new optimism that the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE) held its eighth annual Phase II National Policy Forum on December 9 in Washington, D.C.  Phase II denotes the period (2000–2025) for implementing the new energy technologies that were researched, developed, and demonstrated during Phase I (1975-2000).

At the conference, a strong emphasis was placed on bipartisan collaboration. Many Democratic lawmakers had taken for granted that a significant U.S. climate and energy bill would be passed when President Obama took office in early 2009. Speakers at Phase II agreed that Democrats now have to rid themselves of their defeatist attitudes and concentrate on working productively with Republicans.

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