Posted by: Dr Churchill | November 10, 2012

Obama’s Turn at the Climate Controls — A real deal in the works

After a ferocious battle and an Election to be remembered as the most contested & vociferous in US history, popular democracy along with the public vote have delivered their mandate, handing Barack Obama four more years as the President of the United States. And as history has a way of rewarding winners — this places him at the Climate Controls of the planet.

Barack Obama is now the man firmly at the switch… He also has got the experience of the first term and the gumption along with the popular mandate to change things. Really, CHANGE things.

This peaceful transition of power is an enduring, unique and wondrous attribute of the American Democracy.  Students of history amongst us already know that back in 1796, when President George Washington declined running for a third term, he wrote a letter to America entitled: “The Address of General Washington To The People of The United States on his declining of the Presidency of the United States.”  President Washington’s retirement paved the way for a vicious political battle between the Federalists, who favored John Adams and the Jeffersonians who were eponymously named for their candidate and favoured state rights. A bit similar to what happens in Europe today. More integration into a federal entity fighting against the individual state nations rights to full independence… But back then, the US Constitution specified that the candidate with the most Electoral College votes should become President and the candidate with the second highest number of votes become Vice-President.  So, Adams, the Federalist, with 71 Electoral votes became the second President of the United States and Thomas Jefferson, his ideological opponent, became Vice-President. On March 4, 1797, Adams and Jefferson were inaugurated at Congress Hall in Philadelphia.  Two opposing parties, two opposing points of view united to democratically govern — it was the first of many peaceful transitions of power in America.  Peaceful transitions that have continued to demonstrate that Government of the people, by the people and for the people can, in fact, can and will endure, provided we do our part to serve Democracy and it’s many functions.

Those of us who exercised our right to vote, we not only participated in another peaceful transition of power, but we caused it. And now President Obama will lead our nation for the next four years.  While the Electoral College was not close, the popular vote was – so I thought it might be a good idea to have a non-partisan, non-political look at the impact that this election may have during our ongoing transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age and now to the Climate Age. After all this is the heralding of the Anthropocene Era and this signals a seismic shift in our development and the chances of human beings to rule our world wisely.  And thankfully the winning candidate doesn’t have to share the Presidency with his opponent as in the days of George Washington, the Republican House will shift to become helpful again to the American public by virtue of it’s own need to adapt and survive…

So now we shall see how well Obama manages to steer the global thermostat and we shall support his manoeuvres  wholeheartedly. And this also is the method by which history will judge his performance. Obama will be judged by history only on his performance on climate change – which barely got a mention during the campaign, but later came to be seen as the defining issue of the  unspoken debate and the litmus test of our era. Although this came to pass late –  when Sandy hit New York – the President acted quickly and decisively and this was positively recognized by the voters and he addressed it in his Victory speech to great applause.

Passing new laws to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the US remains unlikely, with the House of Representatives still controlled by a Republican majority dominated by climate change sceptics and oil company lobbyists. But Obama has a few key policy levers at his disposal via existing laws – and the institutions and regulatory agencies like EPA and NOOA and Department of Commerce and Homeland Security – Yes Homeland Security Department – and other agencies that in his second and final term, will be using effectively and perhaps fiercely…

His best hope of course is to built upon the 1970 Clean Air Act . This was instituted by a Republican President and GOP house and after two landmark Supreme Court rulings, in 2007 and 2011 respectively, established that it gives the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to regulate greenhouse gases — its a shoe in. Although in his first term, with Republican opponents railing against “job-killing” EPA regulations, the Obama administration was cautious about using this power — in the run-up to an election dominated by job prospects in a fragile economy — now Obama no longer has to worry about getting reelected, so as the second term, gets under way, He starts acting decisively on climate change. And Obama is also thinking about his legacy – and a lasting contribution. What he is going to be remembered is important, and as the healthcare and the really big divisive partisan issues that defined his first term in office have become entrenched and a matter of fact — Obama will shift to the Environment as the biggest thing there is to solve out there.

Public opinion may also be shifting in favour of action. The latest polling from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication shows that belief in the reality of climate change, and concern about its effects, are at their highest levels since 2008. Significantly, there is growing unease about the link between climate change and extreme weather, with 74 per cent of Americans now agreeing that “global warming is affecting weather in the United States”.

Having achieved a renewed mandate – albeit by a slender margin in the popular vote – and with the devastation wrought by hurricane Sandy fresh in the memory, Obama may be well placed to seize the moment. I do think there’s an opportunity, that the President has to show leadership and get attention on the costs of that climate change is likely to cause…

Regulating US power plant emissions, which account for about 40 per cent of the nation’s output of carbon dioxide, is the top priority. That’s the biggest opportunity for progress in the next few years. The EPA has already written draft regulations to limit emissions from new power plants, but the main opportunity for big reductions lies with new rules on emissions from existing facilities. According to a recent analysis from Resources for the Future in Washington DC, cuts of up to 5 per cent from existing plants could keep the US roughly on target to meet Obama’s 2009 pledge to reduce US greenhouse gas releases by 17 per cent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels. How this gets implemented will depend on how the regulations are written but may include improving the efficiency of existing plants or increasing the output of nuclear plants.

Advocates for cuts also see a chance to curb leaks of methane from natural gas production and distribution pipelines, because in August, the EPA issued rules to limit air pollution by volatile organic compounds from “fracking” which should, as a by-product, also reduce emissions of methane. Impetus to address methane leaks directly should come from an ongoing study involving the gas industry and the Environmental Defense Fund, which aims to put hard numbers on the amount of methane lost across the natural gas supply chain.

And lastly Obama plans huge Energy policy changes:  According to Obama, “By ending government subsidies for oil companies and investing in cleaner sources, we can become a global leader in clean energy, creating American jobs and businesses while improving our environment and national security. An unprecedented boom in domestic production has led to cheaper natural gas, and President Obama will take every possible action to safely develop this abundant source of American energy to support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. U.S. oil production is at a 14-year high and President Obama has charted a course to cut net oil imports in half between 2008 and 2020, lowering imports by 5.5 million barrels per day and reducing our reliance on foreign oil to its lowest level in almost three decades.” Heady stuff…

Other key decisions include the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would pump oil from Canada’s tar sands to refineries in Texas. This will land on Obama’s desk after an environmental review is completed next year.

Still the most important issue is the one entailing carefully choreographed international Tango dancing in order to get other nations to built upon the almost forgotten Copenhagen Accord and make it a REAL DEAL.

A REAL DEAL in as much as possible tooth and claw regulation that is mandatory and provides for worldwide emissions cuts. Because at the end of the day, who is afraid of Iran when the likes of Sandy hit New York city three times a year?




In his victory speech in Chicago, Obama talked of an America where our children “aren’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet”.

So the post-election message from the President might be this:

“Forget about new laws to limit climate change, but watch for serious and concerted action nonetheless to limit emissions and drive for a global Climate Change deal.”

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