Following the call to action and sweeping plan of attack offered by President Obama during his Second Inaugural Address last month and State of the Union this week, it is clear that he has made climate change a priority in his second term.  From outlining the need to increase renewable energy research and installations to setting an ambitious goal of improving efficiency in homes and businesses by 50 percent over the next twenty years, President Obama’s wide-reaching plan has the potential to once again make the United States a global leader in environmental action.

President Obama discusses Hurricane Sandy, an extreme weather event that has been linked with climate change, with disaster response officials. Obama has reaffirmed his intention to fight climate change in his second term (Source: The White House)

While President Obama’s renewed commitment to address climate change has raised hopes, it is important to review the successes and failures of his last four years in order to set realistic expectations for what is possible during his second term.

Early during his first term, the United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen presented President Obama with a major international opportunity to demonstrate how his Administration would differ from the previous eight years of the United States playing foil to international environmental cooperation during the Bush Era.  The Obama Administration did not rise to the challenge, instead offering minor concessions while continuing to push for stalling the negotiations until 2015 and beyond, effectively deferring the responsibility for an international treaty to the next Presidential term.

Domestically, Obama’s environmental track record fared somewhat better.  The Administration has advanced environmental protection by increasing vehicle mileage standards, expanding protected areas, strengthening air quality standards, and raising federal investment in clean energy to the highest levels in US history.  On the other hand, the Obama Administration failed to oversee comprehensive climate legislation, and has drawn out the decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Of course, there are some extenuating circumstances that Obama faced in his first term that made success more difficult to achieve.  While a lack of political readiness or will to move may be to blame for the Administration’s lack of forward progress at international negotiations, domestically the Obama team’s success was tempered by a divided congress, the prolonged economic depression, and a desire to remain an appealing candidate throughout a hotly contested re-election. 

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Climate Change, Copenhagen, emissions reductions, EPA, negotiations, United States
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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Climate Change, energy, energy policy, inauguration, President Obama, renewable energy, United States

The recent increase in U.S. oil production after four decades of decline has attracted great excitement in the energy industry and beyond.  The International Energy Agency, projects that North America could become a net oil exporter within the next few decades.

While these developments are undeniably dramatic, they may be obscuring some other unexpected and potentially transformative changes with large implications for the U.S. economy and the global environment.  They include:

1.  U.S. energy consumption declined in 2012 for the fourth time in the last five years—even as economic recovery began to take hold.  According to preliminary Worldwatch estimates, total energy use in 2012 was a full 7 percent below the 2007 level, the steepest five-year decrease in at least 60 years.  Most of this decline results from advances in U.S. energy productivity—dominated by gains in transportation fuel economy and building efficiency.

2.  Reliance on natural gas is growing rapidly, particularly in power generation.  Falling natural gas prices, sparked by the shale gas boom, has led electric utilities to switch from  coal to gas while many manufacturing companies have been replacing oil with gas.  (Not surprisingly since gas prices averaged the equivalent of $18 per barrel in 2012 while oil hovered at $100.)  Natural gas provided the U.S. with 27 percent of its total energy in 2012, compared with just 18 percent from coal.

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emissions reductions, energy, natural gas, renewable energy, United States

I visited Berlin a week after President Obama’s reelection, and came away envious of the strategic clarity and political consensus that mark Germany’s new energy strategy. After months of watching Democrats and Republicans bash each other with vacuous and contradictory rhetoric about where our country’s energy future lies, it was refreshing to see that one of our key allies has a plan—and is implementing it.

Despite having a relatively weak solar resource, strong domestic policy has enabled Germany to dominate the global solar PV market (Source: REN21).

In 2012, Germany got more than 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, up from 5 percent in 1995 and 10 percent as recently as 2005. Since 1995, the U.S. share of renewable electricity has hardly budged—going from 10 percent to 11.5 percent.) At the same time, Germany has rapidly increased its energy efficiency, and reduced its carbon dioxide emissions and dependence on imported fossil fuels. Government plans are even more ambitious—at least 80 percent of the nation’s electricity is to come from renewables in 2050.

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China, Climate Change, Climate Policy, coal, energy policy, France, Germany, green transition, Italy, nuclear, renewable energy, solar power, United States, wind power

There is ample reason to praise President Obama’s engagement with a diverse collection of world leaders; in particular, the administration’s “pivot to Asia” indicates recognition of an evolving geopolitical landscape, a recognition that will hopefully continue in his second term. But one region in particular has been noticeably absent from the administration’s agenda: sub-Saharan Africa. And this oversight could have long-term implications for the energy future of the sub-Saharan African region, and even the economic future of the United States.

No region suffers from energy poverty more than sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly seven out of ten people lack access to reliable and affordable electricity.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a region full of contradictions. On the one hand, it is home to six of the ten fastest growing economies between 2001 and 2010; on the other, 14 of the 20 states Foreign Policy’s Failed State Index deems “critical” are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout the region, one of the largest obstacles towards widespread and equitable economic development is the crippling degree of energy poverty. The most recent data suggests that a lack of access to reliable and affordable electricity leaves nearly 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africans in the dark every day.

With the re-election of President Obama, the time is ripe for the administration to realize that, for all of the region’s struggles, reaching out to sub-Saharan Africa is within the United States’ self-interest. Prioritizing the alleviation of energy poverty is one way to strengthen efforts to improve the quality of education, reduce illness and disease, boost incomes across the region, and also to lay the groundwork for budding economic partnerships. 

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Africa, Brazil, China, renewable energy, renewable energy investment, sustainable development, United States

The controversial Businessweek cover in the aftermath of Sandy. (Source: Bloomberg Businessweek)

For the past several years, nearly all major news outlets and most high-profile politicians in the United States have been silent on the issue of human-caused climate change. Even in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, initial reporting on the catastrophe failed to mention climate change, at least directly. But it’s clear that this attitude needs to change. Fast.

As Sandy roared toward the Northeast, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Fox News all devoted time and space to covering the effects of the storm surge. They reported on its severity, emphasized where more aid was needed, and brought into sharp relief the human dimension of a more-than-human catastrophe. Reporters brought stories of devastation and heartache to the rest of the country (and the world) and gave readers and viewers tips on how they can assist the affected and support those who, in many cases, lost everything.

Several commentators, such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo, noted that extreme weather events are becoming more common, but they failed to mention the links to climate change directly. Limited and ambiguous references to climate change—one of the most pressing issues that humanity has ever faced—has long been the state of political discourse in the United States.

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climate, Climate Change, communication, Hurricane Sandy, systemic causation, United States

President Obama's energy policy won the support of many Americans. (Source: Flickr.com, Photo by Tyler Driscoll for Obama for America)

After months of retrograde discussion of energy policy on the campaign trail, the United States woke up on Wednesday to a surprisingly happy conclusion: U.S. voters have rejected candidate Romney’s fossil fuels-only approach to energy policy and embraced the new course set by President Obama in his first term.

It was the fossil fuel industry itself, fueled by millions of dollars from the coal and oil industries, that decided more than a year ago to turn the 2012 election into a crusade—and a referendum.  Bolstered by an unprecedented war-chest and exaggerated attention to a few failed solar loans by the Obama administration, the energy establishment made its election preference abundantly clear, giving American voters a clear choice. It was an all-in bet by the “drill-baby-drill” crowd—and one they decisively lost.

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elections, energy, energy future, energy policy, Obama, United States

By now, the heartbreaking photos of neighborhoods swept to sea and a climbing death toll have reminded us all of the immeasurable pain and tragedy our environment can incur. We think of the millions of people who continue to be affected by the storm, the tens of thousands who have lost all that they own, and the hundreds who have lost their lives.

Widespread damage from Hurricane Sandy. (Source: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen via CNET)

Sandy also tells us a lot about ourselves. From a pessimistic standpoint, it shows human failure: our failure to listen to those who understand far better than most of us do the impact of human behavior on the atmosphere, our climate system, and the ecosystems that surround us. While it is true that no singular weather event can be directly linked to human-caused global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – since its establishment in 1988 arguably the most thorough and meticulous scientific undertaking in human history – has reported with increasing confidence that weather extremes will become more frequent, more widespread, and more intense with rising greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC’s assessments, and those of many other leading scientific bodies, have led prominent commentators—among them Nobel laureates, prime ministers, presidents, secretary-generals, and even movie stars—to call out global warming as this century’s greatest threat. But Sandy demonstrates in dramatic fashion our inability to take more profound steps to tackle global challenges, despite our knowledge that we endanger ourselves if we don’t. Sandy reveals our refusal to take responsibility for our actions and our skepticism that real change (of natural systems as well as of our own behavior) is possible.

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climate, Climate Change, extreme weather, Hurricane Sandy, United States

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the 20th Annual Fall Meeting for the American Bar Association’s Section on the Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER). The conference, held in Austin, Texas, was attended by hundreds of lawyers and professionals involved in the environment, energy, and natural resource legal fields. Unlike in previous years, the 2012 meeting was dedicated completely to U.S. energy issues, including the production of shale gas, the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, federal energy and climate regulation, and prospects for wind and solar power.

As expected at a gathering of prominent lawyers, there was little agreement about the proper direction for U.S. energy policy. But one overriding theme did emerge: the country will continue to pursue a broad-based energy strategy. In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama laid the groundwork for an “all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy.” During the recent presidential debates, both Obama and his opponent Governor Mitt Romney indicated that the United States would continue down this path. Where the conference attendees, presidential candidates, and general public disagree is on the proper composition of an “all-of-the-above” energy policy.

So, what do we agree on?

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energy policy, EPA, natural gas, renewable energy, United States

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Amid the series of inaccurate, confusing things that were said at last week’s presidential debate, energy policy set a new standard for wrong-headed rhetoric, wasting a great opportunity to engage 67 million Americans in a serious conversation about the country’s energy future.

President Obama got the energy discussion off to a reasonable start when he contrasted Romney’s obsession with fossil fuels with his own “all of the above” energy strategy, including a brief mention of solar and wind power.

But things went downhill from there when, out of the blue, Romney interjected, “By the way, I like clean coal” (the most rapidly declining and dirtiest U.S. energy source) and went on to compare the $2.8 billion in annual tax breaks for the 100-year-old oil industry with the supposed $90 billion that the Obama administration spent on renewable energy. (The latter figure reflects, of course, the multi-year stimulus bill approved by Congress in 2009—including vital loan guarantees for renewable energy, but also large sums for Romney’s favorite energy source, coal.)

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energy, energy policy, presidential debate, United States