Is Washington Ready to Act on Climate Change?
In President Obama’s victory speech early Wednesday, he said one of his dreams is that the nation’s children would live in an America “that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”
An issue that has been quieted in the last few months, and absent from the presidential debates, climate change is again creeping into Obama’s rhetoric. But this time around, experts and environmental groups are wary of how to achieve a clean-energy future, and say the biggest chance of passing initiatives is by circumventing Congress entirely.
“Well, basically Congress isn’t changing all that much,” says Daniel Fiorino, director of the Center for Environmental Policy at American University. “I find it hard to predict at this point what the Republicans in the House will do. Will they be in the same uncompromising mood as they have been in the last few years?”
In the first term, Obama tried to pass major environmental measures through Congress, with no success. His cap-and-trade bill in 2010 was one such failure. Originally heralded as a bipartisan bill, its lofty measures were meant to reward innovation while putting a strict cap on environmental emissions. It didn’t make it out of the Senate.
“[Obama] made a few attempts at broad, sweeping legislation, such as cap and trade, and searching for a binding international treaty in Copenhagen, but both of those didn’t really succeed,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “So his administration shifted toward a piecemeal approach: regulating standards for vehicles, power plants, and pushing for the strengthening of clean air and water through the EPA.”
Environmental experts say the Environmental Protection Agency has been Obama’s saving grace—and still may be the only means by which he can stimulate climate awareness.
Established in 1970, the EPA legally allows the president to set standards and regulations to protect human health and the environment. During his first term, Obama used the agency to pass regulations under the Clean Air Act that determined fuel-efficiency standards for cars and also established mercury-pollution levels at power plants.
Going into his second term, President Obama is again likely facing opposition, but again can utilize the EPA to create new standards.
“With Romney-Ryan, we would have seen the EPA gutted and a rollback to the limit on pollution from coal plants and more oil drilling on public lands,” Brune says. “With Obama, we’ll probably see large-scale wilderness protection and I think we have a shot at being able to move away from extreme energy-source removal, like the tar sands and mountaintop mining.”
However, the EPA can only address energy issues from one direction. It can’t jumpstart growth in renewable-energy infrastructure or provide subsidies. In order to fully address the effects of climate change, the president would need to get Republican support—and this time around that support may actually be possible. One reason: many red states would benefit economically from the construction and growth of clean-energy infrastructure.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, more than 81 percent of the nation’s installed wind capacity is in districts represented by Republicans. Therefore, senators and congressman might be able to support legislation that brings subsidies or tax cuts to their constituents.
“I think wind energy and clean energy are regional and fairly bipartisan,” says Phil Radford, executive director at Greenpeace. “Over a quarter of wind energy is in states like Texas.”
The other reason the time may be ripe: both Democrats and Republicans are affected by global warming, and the public is starting to see its effects, with severe droughts across the South and Midwest and devastating hurricanes along the East Coast.
“I think you will see a much more diverse constituency demanding action across the aisle,” Radford says. “The number of industry leaders, and even Businessweek, that are coming out and saying, ‘It’s global warming, stupid,’ will change the game.”
The amount of Americans that believe global warming is real has also grown. According to a 2012 study by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 70 percent believe in global warming, a 13 percentage percent increase from two and half years ago. Additionally, 54 percent of Americans believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities, an 8 percent increase just since this past March.
“Most people accept that something is happening with extreme weather and more than enough Republicans are willing to talk about risk management,” says Matthew Nisbet, a communications professor at American University.
Nisbet says Republican leaders are already feeling the effects and stresses of climate change and may be stronger proponents of legislation and action than clean-energy groups and President Obama anticipate.
“All you have to do is bring Gov. Chris Christie to Capitol Hill and have him talk about the risks and threats to New Jersey … and also talk to other Republican congressmen that have agricultural interests in states that have been hit by droughts. Once you bring together that conversation, the rest just has to do with how the Republican Party leadership reacts to the election.”