Obama admin. sets stage for new kinds of climate action

President Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been frequently praised for its shrewd recalibration of American leadership within a global context. Whether it was 2011’s multilateral intervention in Libya, the administration’s still incomplete “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region, or the U.S.’ withdrawal from Iraq and oncoming end to its mission in Afghanistan, there has been a defined sense of purpose in Obama’s movements. This has not been true in regard to climate change, however, arguably his most immediate foreign policy issue. Might his second term, just maybe, offer a second chance for us to lead the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in clean sources of energy? Just maybe.

Obama’s second inaugural address surprised viewers with its heavy focus on climate change. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama declared. He took a refreshingly sharp tone against skeptics as well: “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact” of increasingly destructive weather. But Obama’s combative posture in front of the podium means little. To gather clues as to what we can expect from his administration, we must see how, after several high profile departures (including Environmental Protection Agency chair Lisa P. Jackson and Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu), it is being rebuilt.

The center of gravity for Obama’s efforts seems to be within the executive branch, particularly the EPA. The New York Times reports that Obama has little desire to confront Congress over major climate change policy, but hopes to use the EPA to implement rules lowering emissions from new and existing coal-burning power plants. Though this kind of end-run around Congress is understandable given the implacable Republican opposition to comprehensive climate change legislation, the approach has its weaknesses. Jackson’s departure, for instance, means that Obama must nominate a new EPA director. If Republican behavior toward the EPA resembles its action toward the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—Richard Cordray was nominated to be its first director, but was blocked by Republicans hoping to prevent implementation of financial reform—then Obama’s new course of action may yield little.

In an interview with Buzzfeed, former GOP representative Bob Inglis (R-SC) cited such obstructionism and skepticism as reason for his ouster in the 2010 midterm elections. “My most enduring heresy was just saying climate change is real,” he said, before expressing reserved hope that his party might see reason before it becomes too late.

Thankfully, Obama’s team also plans on using the bully pulpit to rally the country against climate change in a manner that they notably shied away from in his first term. It seems prepared to engage with all sectors of the general public (speaking to Reuters, Jackson seemed to most regret this shortcoming of her tenure), and perhaps carry these tactics out on the global stage as well.

Politico’s recent report of Obama’s new climate change team characterizes the coalition as well-rounded, versed in policy, and politically savvy. His new chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and new Secretary of State, John Kerry, have both been vigorous advocates for climate change action. Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant for Energy and Climate Change, is well-respected by energy businesses. Kerry in particular has been cited for his potential ability to work with international leaders, especially from China and India, at future climate change summits to attain binding agreements. But here is where the future of climate change policy grows hazy, both as a national and international issue.

In some respects, climate change is undergoing a transformation in scale. While, due to its urgency, one might expect it to become the province of powerful agencies, bigger bills, and more high-profile summits, it seems to be getting smaller. At first glance this might seem unintuitive. But although Obama allocated prime inaugural real estate to the issue, and national attention focused on the issue after Hurricane Sandy, the words and deeds of leaders suggest that the path ahead will rely on the actions of individuals, not governments or intergovernmental organizations.

Measures at the micro-level will have to become commonplace to fill what will likely be an expanding void left by American congressional leaders and international climate talks. Der Spiegel, a reliably valuable source for the state of climate change policy in Europe and elsewhere, notes that in the last several months European experts have begun to denounce multinational conferences—such as the panned United Nations summits in Copenhagen, Durban, and Doha—as a method of achieving binding agreements to succeed the Kyoto Protocal in general. “[T]he definition of success has been drastically diminished” and these conferences are “charade[s],” according to policy experts. “The dream of a global deal is over,” environmental historian Frank Uekötter told Spiegel. “An elimination [of the summit regime] would create space for new momentum.

The new momentum may be gathering as you read this article. Scientific American reported this week that the EPA is rolling out a new initiative geared toward private individuals and groups in New York City, supplying $125,000 in grants for citizens to collect air and water pollution data and search for local solutions. It would not be surprising if they spread this form of government-funded but locally sourced research to other urban centers and, hopefully, rural areas that are beginning to confront the controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as well.

But such small-bore projects are far from helpful at coordinating action at the international level. As it does in all aspects of foreign policy, the United States has weight it can throw behind necessary missions. Often, political issues at the top of national and international agendas that we now take for granted are those that most suddenly appear. As The New York Times reports, the White House’s and Congress’s current top issues are the federal budget, immigration reform, and gun control. It took the unspeakable tragedy in Newtown, Conn. to bring gun control to the top of the schedule; hopefully it will not require a similarly shocking climatic event, on the scale of Sandy or larger, to do the same for climate change.

The White House needs to find a way to marry its city- and state-level initiatives with the pressing need for international action, and perhaps in its current recalibration lie the building blocks to do just that.


—Lane Kisonak ‘13 is a Political Science major.

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