Contrary to popular belief, the Obama presidency has not taken its cue from environmentalists on all major issues. Nor has it been nearly as liberal as it is accused of being, even in President Obama’s native Great Lakes region.
But if it succeeds with its ambitious, multi-tiered climate change initiative, it will take the nation off dead center on what many people – including Obama’s 2008 rival, Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona – have described as one of Earth’s biggest crises.
The administration will set America on a new path of greenhouse gas reductions and quite possibly leave a mark on environmental law for years to come.
The near-shore Great Lakes region stands to be among the greatest benefactors. Teams of scientists and regulators have long viewed the massive ecosystem, which holds 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water and more shoreline than any collection of freshwater lakes, as one of the most vulnerable to climate change impacts.
But because of its excessive reliance on coal-fired power, the Great Lakes region also has the most at stake in seeing that the Obama plan works.
The initiative, which President Obama announced at Georgetown University on June 25, deploys a combination of executive branch regulations and other administrative actions to impose tighter restrictions on coal-fired power plants, by far the greatest source of carbon dioxide.
It also calls for the federal government to make a much greater investment in renewable energy projects and to step up climate-change mitigation efforts. One way it’ll do that is to require more flood-control designs in projects vying for federal grants and loans. Obama also announced the U.S. will no longer invest in coal-fired and carbon-intensive projects overseas.
“I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies [climate change] is real,” Obama said. “We have no time for the Flat Earth Society.”
Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent of several climate-altering greenhouse gases.
It is now at the highest level it’s been in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution and most likely the highest since man has been on Earth.
Great Lakes states are major contributors because of their heavy industry and heavy reliance on coal for electricity. Ohio, which gets 80 to 90 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants, is the nation’s fourth largest energy user and one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters.
Unable to needle its way through the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and the nuances of a Democratic-controlled-but-politically-divided U.S. Senate, the Obama administration is banking on its ability to use the powers of the landmark Clean Air Act to its advantage.
It will use precedent from recent Supreme Court cases to impose the tighter rules on coal-fired power plants, but will inevitably run into a sea of litigation. Sources say that’s one reason why the administration is announcing the initiative now. It knows it will likely need the final 3.5 years of his administration for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finalize its rules.
According to the Georgetown Climate Center, part of Georgetown’s law school, Obama’s initiative comes at a time in which 87 percent of Americans want action on climate change.
The center’s polling reflected a bipartisan frustration with the impasse: Seventy-eight percent of those who want some sort of action are Republicans and 94 percent are Democrats.
That, however, will hardly quell debate.
One conservative group, Heritage for Action, accused the president of “a willingness to bypass Congress to advance his big-government agenda” and of using his executive powers for “pushing regulations that will destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
Another, Americans for Prosperity, stated the administration’s proposed rules “are essentially an end-run around Congress that will cripple the coal industry, hurt blue collar workers and impact small communities across the country.”
The Chicago-based Heartland Institute, which describes itself as a free-market think tank, has for years has disputed findings by governmental scientists on climate change. It issued statements critical of Obama by eight of its leaders and others affiliated with the group.
The plan was scorned by National Association of Manufacturers, which represents heavy industry.
But Obama’s critics fail to acknowledge that his plan could create more jobs in the renewable energy sector, one of the few growth areas for manufacturing states such as Ohio and Michigan.
In addition, the Nuclear Energy Institute – the nuclear industry’s lobbying arm on Capitol Hill – said it looks forward to using nuclear to reduce greenhouse gases and “working with the administration to help achieve these extremely important [greenhouse gas reduction] goals.”
Obama said his administration’s stronger commitment to lowering greenhouse gases will create more jobs through innovation – words that play well in the Great Lakes region and other parts of the industrial heartland which came of age through a legacy of innovation with the automotive industry. Obama cited requirements for more fuel-efficient vehicles as a way in which an environmental measure helped domestic automakers such as General Motors increase auto sales.
But while politicians argue whether Obama’s plan will create or destroy jobs, scientists find more impacts of a warming planet in the Great Lakes region.
Climate change is driving up food costs by making it more difficult to grow crops, including here in the agricultural-rich Great Lakes region. More frequent and intense storms – as well as prolonged periods of drought and other types of abnormal weather – complicate the crop-growing effort.
One of the biggest changes over the past 30 years has been warmer winter nights. That has led to a lack of snow and ice cover. Warmer water provides better habitat for invasive species and makes it easier for algae to bloom. That can drive away native fish such as walleye and yellow perch and hurt the boating and fishing industries.
Warming temperatures can lead to more air pollution, which can result in more asthma. Lower lake levels cause lighter shipping loads. Not moving cargo as efficiently hurts the economy. Lower lake levels and biological changes to the lakes also hurt recreational boating and fishing, a major component of the Great Lakes region’s valuable tourism industry.
Obama wants the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. He also wants 20 percent of electricity for government facilities coming from renewable energy sources by then. Ambitious as those efforts sound, he concedes they are coming too late to stave off many of the inevitable impacts, let alone doing much to reverse climate change especially as developing nations such as China and India continue to require more energy.
But for all of the urgency in Obama’s voice, he did little to advance this issue since Republicans – led by a Tea Party surge – took control of the House in 2010, effectively killing his administration’s early hopes for congressional approval on major climate change legislation.
The 2012 election, held as most of the continental United States was just starting to come out of its worst drought in 50 years, was the first that climate change did not factor into a presidential debate since renowned NASA scientist James Hansen gave his landmark testimony about climate change to Congress in 1988.
While history may look back someday and see Obama’s plan to address climate change as his greatest environmental achievement, his record has been a mixed bag on other issues.
Great Lakes activists have been encouraged by his administration’s $1 billion-plus in new money for shoreline cleanups and protection given the state of the economy, even though it has fallen off place from Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge for $5 billion during his presidency.
But they bit their tongues as his administration went to the Supreme Court to help Illinois block several other Great Lakes states from pursuing a multi-billion plan to separate the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds, to keep voracious Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan via a series of Chicago-area waterways. The irony is Illinois now has a governor who agrees there might be some wisdom to such a massive hydrological project someday.
Obama was moving toward tighter rules on ground-level ozone, the pollutant behind much smog, then reversed course – to the dismay of many health and environmental experts – as the 2012 campaign began in earnest. That was another major environmental issue he shelved because of politics. There’s a Great Lakes connection: Pollution that falls from the sky has been a greater threat to the lakes than direct discharges from submerged pipelines for years.
When it comes to energy, Obama talked up nuclear when he took office. That, too, made some environmentalists uncomfortable. But, then, his administration ceased funding for developing Nevada’s Yucca Mountain into a national repository for spent nuclear fuel, thereby delivering the nuclear industry one of its biggest blows. The uncertainty over waste disposal made it even harder for utilities to court Wall Street investors.
Perhaps the biggest way Obama has made it clear he doesn’t always follow the mainstream environmental agenda is his support for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline planned from Alberta, Canada, to America’s Midwest and South.
Even though such a pipeline would move petroleum-based liquids more efficiently – thereby emitting fewer greenhouse gases – environmentalists fear it will worsen North America’s addiction to fossil fuels. According to a U.S. State Department report in March, the pipeline’s net impact on climate would be small. Obama said when he rolled out his climate plan that his support for the Keystone XL pipeline now depends on proof that it will not result in more greenhouse gases.
Many of his administration’s rules work in tandem with hopes that oil and gas companies have of tapping into previously inaccessible reserves because of advances in a horizontal drilling technique euphemistically known as “fracking.” The oil and gas industry has been fracturing underground rock for decades, but was limited until the horizontal technique was improved. Many other countries believe it will open untapped reserves for exploration.
Obama’s plan to address climate change comes as the National Climatic Data Center, operated in North Carolina by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has compiled records which show all but two of the top 14 years for warmth – 1997 and 1998 – have occurred since 2000.
This year is on pace to be the eighth hottest.