Where Is Obama on the Climate Treaty?

by Kyle Ash

November 13, 2013


In Warsaw, 189 countries are represented in the negotiations that started Monday. Many people are rightly wondering about the country responsible for the most climate pollution in the atmosphere. There are reasons for hope about the US reducing its emissions, but Obama still shows no indication he’s serious enough to give international climate policy the force of law.

According to the Energy Information Agency, US carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have decreased to 1992 levels, achieving about a 13% cut since 2005 levels (other climate pollutants are uncertain). Much of this CO2 decrease is due to dropping coal for electricity. About 10% of the country’s coal-fired power plants have announced retirement, and 25% or more may shut down before 2020. The US administration implies this is evidence of the success of Obama’s policies. If this were true, given Obama has far from tapped his regulatory authority, he might propose strengthening the measly 17% target for 2020 (4% under 1990).

Unfortunately, it is difficult to say if Obama’s policies overall help or hurt the climate. Much of the recent mitigation is due to other factors having nothing to do with action by Obama. And although he has used his authority to put forward policies that reduce fossil fuel demand domestically, the global climate footprint of his policies must include what he has done to increase fossil fuel supply.

Regarding domestic mitigation, it’s hard to argue Obama’s policies represent much effort. The vehicle emissions rule could lead to about 5% lower annual emissions by 2035. Probably no other policy comes close in terms of measurable emissions reductions. This is significant, but Obama only gets some credit for the 2010 car rule.

After the recession in 2008 and 2009, and a long recalcitrance to update fuel economy, US car companies were on their knees asking for bailouts. This political vulnerability helped Congress pass legislation requiring the rule, and EPA to finalize it. The Supreme Court also decided EPA was obligated to develop such rules. All this happened before Obama became President. Granted, the executive branch could ignore obligations given by the other two branches of government. Bush did this. But it would be discomfiting to accept it was a great effort for Obama to allow EPA to respect legal directives on car pollution, especially since Obama made great promises on climate during his first presidential campaign.

During his fifth year in office, this last Spring, the Obama climate plan came with fanfare and Obama’s best climate rhetoric since campaigning in 2008. The ‘new’ plan was almost entirely composed of policies his administration had already announced, implemented, and even accomplished. It was therefore unsurprising that the plan does little to reduce economy-wide climate pollution. The one possible future exception is that the plan includes a timeline for pollution limits on power plants. This is the largest source of US climate pollution. Obama says EPA will finalize a rule by 2015. Unfortunately, there is no understanding of what that policy will do, nor by when. And Obama effectively stalled long enough to punt implementation to a future president.

I’m sure that Obama and his team think I’m being unfair. But I don’t compare him to Bush. I also don’t give him a pass for being attacked by Republicans pandering to climate deniers. He could do much, much more as President. EPA has as much oversight of economy-wide emissions and as many policy options to deal with it as any legislation proposed so far.

There are to be two basic problems with Obama’s policies. First, they don’t reflect how pressing the situation is. He will be president when global emissions are supposed to peak, in 2015, to avoid runaway climate change. Instead of acting like this is a global emergency, his administration seems more worried about the next election and not doing more than Europe, China, and India.

Second, his policies don’t reflect a global view of the problem. Incremental domestic policy be damned. Obama may go down in history as the President of extreme fossil fuel extraction and exports. He has also continued the two-decade US global campaign against any treaty with legal obligations to reduce pollution. He hasn’t pushed for a ‘bottom up approach’ to international trade policy.

It was a sign of things to come when Obama announced in the Spring of 2010 that he was opening up offshore drilling in virtually every un-drilled part of the US outer-continental shelf. The BP blowout not long after was a political bump in the road. The US government later issued permits for drilling in the Arctic Ocean, as the ice thins and disappears. The State Department signed an historic agreement with Mexico to expand oil drilling into ultra-deepwater. This was the same State Department which concluded the KXL tar sands pipeline has no climate impact. State based part of this erroneous conclusion on the notion that the US cannot do anything to affect the supply of fossil fuels, because ‘if we don’t supply it, someone else will.’ This excuse is also used to support coal exports.

Obama is working to make fracking global, despite the US having no federal standards and unfinished studies on side effects like earthquakes, water impacts, and methane leakage. His government is approving terminals to export liquid natural gas (LNG) at unprecedented levels. Obama’s government frequently implies LNG is beneficial to the climate, myopically focused on smokestacks despite that LNG’s overall climate footprint could be worse than coal’s.

Obama has increased auctions of publicly-owned coal at subsidized prices, even though US coal demand has fallen. The increased sales of cheap coal from public land comes as coal companies plan to quintuple coal exports. If they are even partially successful, these coal exports could completely nullify the global benefit to coal plant retirements that are theoretically possible in the next decade.

Rather than emphasize barriers to trade in the form of fossil fuel subsidies – which could include selling publicly-owned coal at below fair market value – his trade team has pursued legal action under international trade law on other national policies that promote production of renewable energy. Obama’s government has openly discouraged climate policies in other countries. For instance, the US Trade Representative is lobbying Europeans to relax laws against imports of tar sands oil with its exceedingly high climate footprint (though this is consistent with State’s rosy view of tar sands oil). This is a blatant attempt to grandfather environmental loopholes into a trade agreement.

Obama’s administration has done the bidding of the airlines, advocating against the integration of aviation emissions into the European carbon trading regime. Brazenly, given the US obstinacy to any type of international legal obligations on any type of climate pollution, Obama’s excuse is that aviation emissions would be better dealt with in a global regime. Well aware of the irony of the US position, the EU nonetheless agreed to stall its own policy in exchange for Obama’s team agreeing to a time line to sign an international agreement on aviation pollution.

A glimmer of hope for US internationalism on climate is Obama’s new policy to end US financing of coal-fired power plants abroad (with some caveats). This is actually a radical reversal, as financing for fossil fuels abroad has increased steeply under Obama until now. In 2012 the US Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) provided about $10 billion to fossil fuel projects. Ultimately, this policy could become an exception that proves the rule, since oil, gas, and coal mining projects are still allowed. Also, US subsidized coal, and increased exports of all fossil fuels, certainly won’t cause higher prices on the global market.

The seriousness of global climate disruption demands leaders with a global view of the problem, who are willing to do everything in their power as quickly as possible. The Warsaw talks are another opportunity for leaders to show they agree enough that soft commitments are considered disingenuous to millions of people already suffering from climate impacts. Obama right now seems more worried that climate policy could keep transnational corporations from making money.

Kyle Ash

By Kyle Ash

Kyle Ash formerly served as Greenpeace's Legislative Policy Expert, responsible for domestic and international climate change policy analysis and campaign strategy. He has been quoted in Politico, Greenwire, the New York Times, and CNN, and was one of the most frequently quoted sources during the Copenhagen Climate Conference.

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