Time and again, President Obama has said that climate change must be a priority focus for his administration. In an April visit to the Florida Everglades, the president bluntly expressed how he sees the issue:
[C]limate change can no longer be denied. It can’t be edited out. It can’t be omitted from the conversation. And action can no longer be delayed. And that’s why I’ve committed the United States to lead the world in combatting this threat.
Over the past seven years, the administration has tried to reinforce those words with action. Climate change transcends divisions between foreign and domestic policy. It will directly impact Americans: their livelihoods, their health, and the how their government spends money. It’s fitting, then, that Obama’s response to this threat has been expansive in focus and has only accelerated in the past three years.
Early in the president’s first term, he directed the development of stringent standards for the fuel economy of America’s automobile fleet, which were subsequently issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation. The impacts of the new standards were meant to be a win-win, as the rules were designed to reduce transportation sector emissions—a significant proportion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—in a way that minimizes direct costs to consumers.
Evidently learning lessons from the previous failure of the national cap-and-trade legislation (“Waxman-Markey”), for President Obama’s second term he has looked again to federal regulations, standards, initiatives, and international agreements to push progress forward in the face of congressional obstruction. In rapid succession, 2014–15 has seen a flurry of climate change–related activity from the executive branch, including the following actions discussed further in The Century Foundation’s latest report, The New Era of Executive Action.
- June 2014—The Environmental Protection Agency announces its Clean Power Plan (CPP), designed to work with states to reduce emissions from fossil fuel power plants. The CPP is the anchor of the administration’s climate strategy and the U.S.’s central contribution to the global United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process toward a new climate change treaty to be negotiated in November–December 2015.
- September 2014—Recognizing that a climate change focus is crucial to a strong American foreign policy, the administration announces that the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will ensure that international development programs account for the impacts of climate change. This move will ultimately lead to smarter development projects worldwide, with agricultural assistance programs now taking into account how future droughts will impact crop yields, for example.
- November 2014—Understanding that universal action, including participation by developing world countries, is necessary to prevent the worst effects of climate change, the United States encourages action by China to develop an aggressive plan to fight climate change. The culmination of this effort is a bilateral agreement, finalized at a state visit by President Obama in Beijing, in which China commits to peaking its greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 and expanding the amount of electricity generated from non-fossil fuel sources.
- March 2015—The administration, realizing the need to lead by example, directs federal buildings to implement plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent over the next decade and increase the proportion of electricity generated from renewable sources used on-site.
- March 2015—While the United States has experienced a boom in oil and gas production over the past five years—thanks in part to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”—there are concerns about its environmental impact. To ease concerns, the White House announces new rules for fracking on federal lands. Companies that operate drilling operations must now meet minimum health and environmental standards, including safer storage of post-drilling wastewater and disclosure of some chemicals used in the fracking process.
These initiatives are only first steps, and many of them are still in the early stages of implementation. But if we are to make any progress on addressing climate change, it seems that White House initiatives will become even more necessary over time, as congressional opposition to action on climate becomes more entrenched. The run-up to the Paris climate talks in November–December 2015 will represent additional opportunities for active debate over these issues. If past track records are accurate indicators of future intentions, more executive action may be required in the next administration.