Obama's Climate Challenge

As America wakes up to the dangers ahead, the president has a historic opportunity to take bold action on global warming

Illustration by Victor Juhasz
Obama's Climate Challenge
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Among all the tests President Obama faced in his first term, his biggest failure was climate change. After promising in 2008 that his presidency would be "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," President Obama went silent on the most crucial issue of our time. He failed to talk openly with Americans about the risks of continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, failed to put political muscle behind legislation to cap carbon pollution, failed to meaningfully engage in international climate negotiations, failed to use the power of his office to end the fake "debate" about the reality of global warming and failed to prepare Americans – and the world – for life on a rapidly­ warming planet. It was as if the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced became a political inconvenience for the president once he was elected.

Global Warming's Terrifying New Math

Now Obama gets another shot at it. "The politics of global warming are changing fast," says Kevin Knobloch, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Thanks to a year of extreme weather and Hurricane Sandy, a large majority of Americans – nearly 90 percent – favor action on global warming, even if there are economic costs. The U.S. economy is on the road to recovery and no longer offers an excuse for inaction. Big Coal, traditionally the loudest voice against climate action, has been weakened by a glut of cheap natural gas and the economic viability of solar and wind power. China has new political leadership that appears open to discussing a global agreement to cut carbon. And Obama himself has nothing left to lose. "The president has a big opportunity here," says former Vice President Al Gore. "This is a moment when he can expand the ideas of what's possible."

Obama's record on climate issues is not all bad. In his first term, Gore points out, the president made significant strides in promoting clean energy. "He accomplished more than any president before him," says Gore. Obama's biggest move was to dramatically boost fuel standards for cars and trucks, which will cut climate-warming pollution by 6 billion metric tons in the course of the program. Thanks in part to billions of dollars in federal stimulus, wind energy doubled in the last four years, while solar installations increased sixfold. By the end of the decade, in fact, America is on track to cut its carbon pollution by as much as 17 percent, meeting the long-term goal Obama pledged at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009.

The trouble is, Obama's accomplishments are small-bore when weighed against the immense scale of the climate crisis. 2012 was the hottest year on record in the continental U.S. The polar ice caps are melting faster than scientists predicted; wildfires torched the American West; extreme drought parched 60 percent of the country's farms, jacking up food prices. Then came Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New York and New Jersey. "Climate change has gone from something that happens in a computer model to something that people can see in their own backyards," says Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It is a global crisis playing out before our very eyes. And it's not happening in slow motion."

Obama isn't blind to the threat. "He understands this is the central problem his administration has to deal with in the second term," says John Po­desta, who headed up Obama's transition team in 2008. "He knows the judgment of history is riding on this." At a press conference shortly after his re­election, Obama admitted that "we hadn't done as much as we need to" to address climate change, and promised a "wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials" to make sure that global warming is "not a problem we're passing on to future generations that's going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with."

But if the president is planning any bold action during his second term to combat global warming, there's little evidence of it. "I want to do something on climate," he told a friend and former White House staffer after the election, "but I don't know what." Before his 2008 inauguration, Obama solicited ideas for combating climate change from top environmentalists and energy executives. This time around, there have been no such meetings, and the president has not telegraphed any ideas on climate change to Congress. "If he has a larger strategy on this, I haven't seen it," says the chief of staff to a leading Democratic senator. One Democratic donor and climate activist who visited the White House in December was told point-blank by Heather Zichal, the White House adviser on energy and climate, that the president has no plans to propose any climate legislation to Congress, knowing that House Republicans would shoot it down.

"I think the president understands the climate crisis intellectually, but he has not had the 'holy shit' moment you arrive at when you think about this deeply enough," says a leading climate advocate who has had private conversations with Obama about global warming. Instead of talking about the risks of climate change during the campaign, Obama touted an "all of the above" energy plan that was a soft-porn version of "drill, baby, drill." Under Obama, in fact, oil and gas production have soared: Last year, U.S. oil production grew by 766,000 barrels a day, the largest jump ever, and domestic oil production is at its highest level in 15 years.

Obama, who prides himself on his pragmatism and willingness to compromise, may also be ill-suited to address such an urgent and unyielding crisis – especially because it would mean taking on the climate-denying Republican majority in the House. "Climate is the toughest issue to get any cooperation from Republicans on," says Podesta. In fact, House Republicans see climate change as a wedge issue, the atmospheric equivalent to abortion, which allows them to collect mountains of cash from oil-industry magnates like the Koch brothers while painting themselves as defenders of free enterprise.

"You can't continue with business as usual and pretend you are dealing with the problem," says former Sen. Tim Wirth, who now heads the United Nations Foundation. "It requires a fundamental realignment of how you think about everything, from national security to agriculture to economic investment. Climate change is not one of those issues you can deal with in a few tactical moves."

The first sign of whether Obama is serious about confronting the climate crisis will be revealed by how he organizes the White House. "If you want to know how committed the president is to climate change, just look at the people around him," says a leading environmentalist who asked not to be identified. "Tim Geithner, Valerie Jarrett – they are not climate advocates. Nobody in Obama's inner circle wakes up in the morning and thinks about how we're going to stabilize the Earth's climate – and what will happen if we don't."

When Obama took office in 2009, he appointed Carol Browner, former head of the EPA and a confidante of Al Gore, to be his "climate czar." But she left after two years, and since then the post has gone unfilled. These days, the president's point person on global­ warming has been Heather Zichal, a 36-year-old former legislative aide to Sen. John Kerry. "Heather is smart, but this needs to go about three levels up," says Wirth. It's the equivalent of running a war with a recent West Point grad as your top general.

What's needed, many observers argue, is the climate equivalent of the National Economic Council, which advises the president on a broad range of economic matters. "You need a mechanism headed by someone with stature," says Podesta. "If you just let the bureaucracy run at its normal speed, nothing significant is going to happen. Every time an idea is proposed, someone at Treasury will come up with 75 ideas about why it won't work."

There are signs that the White House is preparing to set up such a policy team. Pete Rouse, senior counselor to the president, has informally solicited recommendations of people best qualified to lead a new push on climate strategy. "It's clearly an idea the White House is taking seriously," one top environmentalist says. Among names being mentioned: Tom Steyer, a California hedge-fund manager with a long history of climate activism, and Kevin Knobloch, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who spent years on Capitol Hill.

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At the same time, Obama needs to fill key vacancies in his administration with strong climate advocates. By far the most important post – and the one sure to be most controversial – is EPA administrator. Lisa Jackson, a tough inside player willing to stand up to Big Oil and Big Coal, announced in December that she was stepping down. "She was clearly exhausted by the endless political attacks on the agency," says one insider. Most of the significant environmental accomplishments of Obama's first term, including tougher vehicle­fuel standards and limits on mercury pollution from coal plants, were accomplished on her watch. But Jackson won congressional approval back in 2009, when Democrats still had control of the House. "The Republicans are on the warpath about the EPA," says Paul Bledsoe, a consultant who worked on climate issues during the Clinton administration. "Unless Obama chooses an industry-friendly guy that Republicans like, the confirmation hearing is going to be a witch hunt."

Another indicator of Obama's commitment on climate will be the "conversation" about global warming he wants to have with scientists, politicians and the American public. "He needs to educate the public about what is going on with the climate and what we can do about it," says Podesta. That means Obama must drop all the talk about "clean coal" and "energy independence" – code words for more mining and drilling – and articulate the hard truths about global warming: that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as quickly as possible, that we'll have to prepare ourselves for life on a hotter, less hospitable planet, and that our suburban paradise of shopping malls, big backyards and SUVs is a relic of an earlier era. And he'll have to do it in a way that stresses the opportunities and upsides of what will amount to a sweeping change in the American way of life: the lives saved and environmental devastation avoided­ by getting off coal, and the economic rewards of becoming a leader in the global push for renewable energy.

In the coming months, Obama will have several hooks on which to hang such a climate conversation. One is the release in September of a new assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations panel that includes the world's top climate scientists. Another is this year's release of the National Climate Impact Assessment, a coordinated effort by the nation's top scientific agencies to lay out the risks of global warming at the regional and local levels. "He should direct everyone in his administration to get out and say, 'Look, this is what the future is going to look like if we don't address this problem,'" says one Senate staffer.

Obama can kick off the conversation by permanently halting the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been dubbed "a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet." In 2011, the administration put off a decision on the 1,200-mile-long pipeline – which would transport dirty oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. But this year, the president is expected to make a call, and that puts him in a difficult position: The Obama who campaigned on an "all of the above" energy strategy argued that America needs jobs and oil, both of which the pipeline provides. But Obama the climate crusader will have a tough time justifying a $7 billion pipeline designed to transport some of the world's most carbon­intensive oil.

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"It's not possible for him to approve the pipeline and say with a straight face that his administration is serious about stabilizing our climate," says Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club. "For decades – as the planet heats up, and storms, droughts and wildfires intensify – this pipeline will suck up the dirtiest oil on the planet and bring it south. And Obama will have made it happen."

The single most effective thing Obama could do to avert a climate crisis would be to make the fossil-fuel industry pay for its planet-warming pollution. As Harvard economist Robert Stavins puts it, "The best way to stop people from doing what you don't want them to do – in his case, dumping carbon into the atmosphere – is to put a price on it."

During Obama's first term, the most politically palatable mechanism to regulate carbon was cap and trade, a system that would place overall limits on carbon emissions from major polluters but allow individual companies to "trade" their allotted caps within the system. The measure, originally championed by Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman, had a proven track record: During the 1990s, a similar plan had succeeded in controlling the pollution that causes acid rain. But this time around, the proposed legislation wound up so encumbered by complex accounting methods and phantom carbon "offsets" that even staunch advocates questioned its effectiveness. In the end, confronted by Tea Party attacks funded in large part by big carbon polluters, Obama abandoned cap and trade.

Since Obama's re-election, however, the idea of making Big Oil and Big Coal pay for their carbon pollution has re-emerged in another form: putting a direct tax on carbon emissions. House Republicans, naturally, have signaled their determination to fight such a plan, and White House spokesman Jay Carney has tamped down speculation on the matter, saying at a postelection press conference, "We would never propose a carbon tax."

But insiders think there's a chance the ground could shift. Were Republicans, citing deficit reduction, to produce a modest $20-a-ton carbon tax – an idea being pushed by right and left-wing D.C. think tanks – Obama would likely embrace it. "If it happens, it will be driven by budget, not environmental, concerns," says Jason Grumet, head of the Bipartisan Policy Center. But the cost of such a deal could be high: In exchange for a carbon tax, Republicans would likely demand an end to EPA oversight on carbon pollution from power plants.

As much as environmentalists and climate activists see carbon taxes as the holy grail of an effective policy to limit carbon emissions, they are wary of a desperate deal like this. Instead, they are urging for a more old-fashioned solution to carbon pollution – and one that doesn't require congressional approval: pushing the EPA to speed up the development of new rules to limit emissions from existing power plants. Such a move would force energy companies to spend millions retrofitting coal plants – or just shut them down.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that carbon emissions are indeed a pollutant as defined by the Clean Air Act. Since the EPA has a legal obligation to limit pollution determined to be a threat to public health, this should hardly be a controversial policy. In December, the Natural Resources Defense Council issued a proposal that shows just how effective it would be for the EPA to crack down on pollution from coal plants. The plan, which tailors emission caps to the power-generation mix in each state, could slash total U.S. carbon pollution by 26 percent by the end of the decade. Besides slowing the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere, the pollution reductions would prevent more than 23,000 asthma attacks and thousands of premature deaths. And instead of costing money, it could save taxpayers and consumers as much as $60 billion. "Rather than slow the economy, the net effect of this proposal would be to stimulate the economy through lower power bills and better health," says David Doniger, policy director of the NRDC's climate program.

But cracking down on pollution from existing coal plants is likely to touch off an epic political battle – one that's difficult to imagine the White House winning without a tough administrator heading up the EPA. Big Coal will trot out all the old arguments about how new rules will raise the price of electricity, sending more manufacturing jobs overseas and forcing little old ladies to freeze to death in their homes because they can't afford to pay their electric bills. Fossil-fuel-era dinosaurs like Sen. James Inhofe, the powerful Oklahoma Republican who believes global warming is a hoax, will surely push back against any strong action by the EPA. Their chief weapon will be a Senate vote under the Congressional Review Act, a legacy of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, which gives Congress the power to overrule federal regulations issued by agencies like the EPA.

Last year, Inhofe used this strategy in a failed effort to stop new mercury rules on coal plants. But the battle over carbon emissions will be much bigger – and even if Republicans lose, the fight could wind up costing some coal-state Democrats their seats, and the White House is certainly aware that the battle could even cost the party control of the Senate in 2014. (Democrats, who currently hold an eight-seat majority, have 20 seats up for re-election – including at least three from coal states like Illinois and West Virginia.) "This is not a fight he should have in the closet," says Podesta. "He needs to make the case, openly and forcefully, about why these regulations are necessary."

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Beyond establishing tough carbon standards, the EPA will be crucial in other battles that are key to addressing the climate crisis – especially­ in establishing new rules to monitor and control methane leaks from oil and gas wells. In the short term, methane is 70 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon. And by some accounts, the amount of methane that escapes from drilling and pumping operations is so large that it makes natural gas no better for the climate than coal. "Fugitive methane is the biggest unknown of all the U.S. emissions sources," says Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund. "Getting a better measurement of it, then figuring out ways to cap it, could have a big impact on the climate in the short term."

Climate policy can't be all stick, of course – there have to be carrots, too. One is to fund more research into clean energy – but in this era of debt ceilings and fiscal cliffs, it's clear that Congress is not going to allow billions to be lavished on renewable energy. Post-Hurricane Sandy, it's more likely that money will be found for infrastructure projects that can help "climate-proof" major cities by burying power lines and building new storm barriers. It's also possible that something interesting could emerge from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, whose new chairman, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, has a reputation for working well with Republicans. One possibility under consideration: a national clean-energy standard, which would mandate that a certain percentage of electricity in each state be generated from low-carbon sources. The president called for such a standard in his 2012 State of the Union address, but Congress largely ignored him. Now, with booming solar and wind-energy growth in red states – 75 percent of U.S. wind capacity is in Republican congressional districts – the time may be right. "Of all the legislative initiatives," says Podesta, "I think a clean-energy standard has the best shot."

The last area where Obama could make real progress is on the international front. Environmental activists were thrilled when the president nominated John Kerry, one of the most knowledgeable and committed climate advocates in the Senate, as secretary of state. In the past, most international climate talks have occurred under the auspices of the United Nations. But Obama and Kerry don't necessarily need to reach out to the entire international community. "If we want to make a global impact, we just need to cut a deal with China," says Wirth. China and the U.S. alone, he points out, account for more than 40 percent of global carbon pollution.

Wirth, who served with Kerry in the Senate and considers him a close friend, thinks we could strike a short-term deal with both India and China to reduce methane leaks from oil and gas wells, or to phase out HFCs, industrial waste that traps up to 11,700 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. "It wouldn't solve the climate crisis, but it would be a step in the right direction," Wirth says. "Kerry understands that the best way to unlock the stalemate in Washington is through Beijing. Once we have China on board, that kills the whole argument that cutting carbon in the U.S. would give China an economic advantage."

But in the end, no matter what kind of deal the administration makes with China or how tough the EPA gets on coal plants, the harsh truth is that it won't be enough to defuse the climate crisis. Unless he takes a bold stance and fights for a more sweeping solution like a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax, the best Obama can do is to help limit the pain and expense we pass on to future generations. But the president knows there is little political upside to spending his last years in office focused on a gloomy subject like climate change. Instead, he has opted to wage his next legislative battle over immigration, an issue that has the potential to expand the Democratic base among Hispanic voters. Making real progress on global warming would require Obama to do something he has shown little inclination for: leading a massive grassroots campaign to rally the American people and overcome the fear-mongering of the fossil-fuel industry and its Republican allies. "You can argue that, in the long run, it will serve Obama and the Democrats well to be the pro-reality party," says Podesta. "But in the end, you just have to take action because it's the right thing to do."

This story is from the January 31st, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1175: January 31, 2013
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