How Obama Hopes To Achieve U.S. Climate Goals

Dec 2, 2015
Originally published on December 4, 2015 3:07 pm

For more than 20 years, world leaders have been trying to craft a solution to global warming, without a lot of success. During that time, the U.S. government has been like the big-ticket movie star who has been offered the lead role, but won't commit.

President Obama, though, thinks he has figured how the United States can once again star, even without the support of the U.S. Congress.

When the world's first climate treaty was signed in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, then-President Bill Clinton held an airport press conference to brag that the U.S. "showed the way" to make that happen. "I am very pleased that the United States has reached a truly historic agreement with other nations of the world to take unprecedented steps to address the global problem of climate change," Clinton said at the time. "The agreement is environmentally strong, and economically sound."

But months later, the U.S. Senate said it wouldn't ratify that treaty, even if the rest of the industrialized world did. From then on, the U.S. didn't have skin in the game — and everyone else knew that.

President George W. Bush agreed with the Senate decision. But he did say climate change was a problem, and one the U.S. should do something about. Speaking in 2007, Bush said, "I put our nation on a path to slow, stop and eventually reverse the growth of our greenhouse gas emissions."

Bush didn't think those changes should come via a United Nations treaty. Rather than deal with the U.N., his approach was to suggest a target for U.S. emissions and encourage private companies to invent new technologies to meet it.

When President Obama took office, he was eager to get the U.S. government to lead the world in the control of emissions. He had a "national climate action plan" to reduce emissions in the U.S., and, he said, the U.S. would return to the world stage.

In 2009, he put in a personal appearance at the climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. But that ended in disappointment; nations failed to agree on a new climate treaty. That same year, a climate action bill he supported died in Congress — one of several pieces of climate legislation to fizzle there.

Republicans, especially, had doubts about the legislation Obama wanted. At a hearing on the bill, Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky spoke for many of the doubters. "The way that this bill affects our production of electricity, and the production of the fuel we use in America, may very well dwarf the climate change problem," Whitfield said.

Others just didn't believe what scientists were saying about the threat of climate change. At a Senate hearing in 2009, Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, questioned NASA climate scientist James Hansen as Hansen tried to explain the geophysics.

"I live in Wisconsin," Johnson told Hansen. "There were, I think, 200-foot-thick glaciers in Wisconsin. How do you explain that ... climate change occurred 10,000 years ago — before man had a carbon footprint?"

There was one leading Republican back then who did believe climate change was a threat — Sen. John McCain of Arizona. That put him in the same pew as Democrat Henry Waxman of California; they both sponsored climate action bills that failed to pass. Waxman, now a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., thinks McCain felt pressure from conservatives.

"He abandoned the whole idea about trying to do something about climate change," Waxman says. "And while he stepped behind the scenes on that issue, the Republicans went further behind and started to say that there was no such thing as climate change. They didn't believe in the science."

So the Obama White House decided to make climate commitments on its own, without Congress. Waxman says the president actually always had the authority.

"What President Obama needs to do for the United States to meet its commitments does not depend on an act of Congress," Waxman explains, "because he can rely on existing law."

One of those laws gives the president the power to regulate fuel efficiency in cars and trucks. David Sandalow, of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, says the president went there first. "Within, I think, a couple of months of President Obama coming to office," says Sandalow, "he had broken an almost 20-year stalemate with respect to fuel efficiency standards for vehicles."

After raising those efficiency standards, Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to turn its attention to power plants that make electricity.

"President Obama has pushed the Clean Power Plan, which [creates] the first limits on heat-trapping gases from power plants," Sandalow says. "And it's the single biggest and most important step we've taken to control greenhouse gas emissions." The power to do that comes from the mother of all environmental laws, the Clean Air Act of 1970.

So, with the Paris negotiations underway, the White House has finally come to a position where it can lead by example, having reduced U.S. emissions already, and with plans to reduce them even more.

Congressional opponents aren't just standing by. In recent weeks the U.S. House and Senate approved bills to overturn key regulations that limit emissions by power plants; the White House, in turn, has vowed to veto those bills, which don't have the votes needed for override.

Still, Congress does have the power to set budgets — and that gives legislators the ultimate say over how much the government will spend on issues related to climate.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For over 20 years, the world's governments have been trying to craft a solution to global warming without much success. During that time, the U.S. government has been like the big-ticket movie star who's been offered the lead role but won't commit. Well, now President Obama thinks he's figured out how the U.S. can take the lead even without the support of Congress. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: When the world's first climate treaty was signed in Kyoto in 1997, President Clinton held an airport press conference to brag that the U.S. had showed the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: I am very pleased that the United States has reached a truly historic agreement with other nations of the world to take unprecedented steps to address the global problem of climate change.

JOYCE: But months later, the U.S. Senate said, no, we're not going to ratify that treaty. The rest of the industrialized world did, though. President George Bush also wanted to do something about climate change, but he preferred encouraging private companies to invent new technologies to do that rather than engage with the United Nations. When President Obama took office, he was gung-ho to make the U.S. a climate leader. He had a national climate action plan to reduce emissions in the U.S., and he said the U.S. would return to the world stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: And America will lead global efforts to combat the threat of a changing climate by encouraging developing nations to transition to cleaner sources of energy and by engaging our international partners in this fight.

JOYCE: But once again, Congress wasn't going to play along. Democrats floated a climate bill, and Congress killed it. Many members worried that the bill would tie the economy in knots with complicated schemes to limit carbon emissions. At a climate bill hearing, Representative Ed Whitfield of Kentucky spoke for many of the doubters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ED WHITFIELD: The way that this bill affects our production of electricity and the production of the fuel we use in America may very well dwarf the climate change problem.

JOYCE: Others just didn't believe the scientists' explanation of climate change like Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, here questioning NASA climate scientist James Hansen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON JOHNSON: I live in Wisconsin. You know, there were 200 - I think 200-foot-thick glaciers in Wisconsin. How do you explain the climate change before man ever had a carbon footprint? How do you explain...

JAMES HANSEN: The statement that you just made is blatantly false. We do know...

JOHNSON: How do you explain climate change that occurred 10,000 years ago before man had a carbon print?

JOYCE: So the president decided to make climate commitments on his own without Congress. Former congressman Henry Waxman of California, who sponsored that failed climate bill, says Obama always had the authority.

HENRY WAXMAN: What President Obama needs to do for the United States to meet its commitments does not depend on an act of Congress because he can rely on the existing law.

JOYCE: One of those laws gives the president the power to regulate fuel efficiency in cars and trucks. David Sandalow, a professor at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, says the president went there first.

DAVID SANDALOW: Within a couple of months of President Obama coming to office, he had broken a almost 20-year stalemate with respect to fuel efficiency standards from vehicles.

JOYCE: After raising those efficiency standards, Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to turn its attention to power plants that make electricity.

SANDALOW: President Obama has pushed the Clean Power Plan, which are the first limits on heat-trapping gasses from power plants in the United States. And it's the single biggest and most important step that we've taken to control greenhouse gas emissions.

JOYCE: The White House has finally come to a position where it can lead by example - working from a script it wrote itself. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.