Obama’s climate change promises

What the president has said, done and not done to combat climate change since taking office

Topics: Barack Obama, State of the union 2013, Climate Change, Global Warming, Keystone XL pipeline,

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Obama promised to take steps to fight climate change, including, if necessary, implementing executive actions.

“I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago,” Obama said. “But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

In his last few major policy speeches, the president has emphasized the importance of taking action to combat climate change. But in the past he’s been a bit more waffling on the subject. Here’s a rundown of how he’s framed the debate since taking office:

2009 Address to a Joint Session of Congress: “So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.  And to support that innovation, we will invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.”

2010 State of the Union: “But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives…And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.I am grateful to the House for passing such a bill last year.  And this year I’m eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate.

2012 State of the Union: “The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation. So far, you haven’t acted. Well tonight, I will. I’m directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes.”

2012 DNC: “And yes, my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet, because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children’s future.”

2013 Inauguration: ”We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.  The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”

In his 2009 inaugural address and his 2011 State of the Union, Obama made no mention of climate change. And in a November 2012 press conference, Obama said that though he plans on addressing climate change, “I think right now the American people have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that if the message somehow is that we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anyone’s going to go for that. I won’t go for that.”

Aside from the rhetoric, what has the president actually accomplished? As Brian Palmer of Slate laid out in 2011, Obama had one notable failure in 2009, when the Democrat-controlled House passed cap-and-trade legislation only to see the White House and Senate Democrats back away from it.

On the other hand, Palmer wrote at the time, Obama has had some success making smaller moves:

The president has bragging rights to some piecemeal climate-change initiatives. The nation’s wind and solar power capacity increased 39 and 52 percent (PDF), respectively, from 2008 to 2009. Some of that is likely due to his decision to extend tax credits and create a new grant program for residential renewable energy as part of the stimulus package. The administration also approved the nation’s first offshore wind farm.

The president raised fuel-economy standards for cars, regulations that finally extend to light trucks. The rules don’t begin to take effect until 2012, so there’s no immediate impact in greenhouse-gas emissions. But the regulations are ultimately expected to ease carbon emissions from cars by 21 percent by 2030, compared to what they would have been under the old rules. The president is also in negotiations to create even stricter requirements by 2025.

Politico summed up the president’s track record in November 2012:

In his first four years, Obama played both sides.

He pushed for unprecedented new air pollution regulations for power plants, delighting environmental groups and infuriating conservatives. But he also stressed the importance of domestic oil and natural gas development, with White House officials even reaching out directly to industry leaders for their input, a strategy that irked liberals.

So what executive actions can Obama take going forward? Lisa Hymas from Grist writes:

The biggie would be regulating carbon pollution from existing power plants. Others include curbing methane emissions from natural-gas drilling and developing new efficiency standards for appliances and equipment.

Of course, the single most high-profile thing Obama could do to signal that he’s serious about climate change would be to reject a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. He neglected to mention that issue in his speech, and his administration keeps kicking the can down the road. A decision might now be delayed until as late as June. But climate activists aren’t sitting around waiting; they’ll be staging a big anti-Keystone protest on Obama’s doorstep this Sunday.

Jillian Rayfield is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on politics. Follow her on Twitter at @jillrayfield or email her at jrayfield@salon.com.

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