Five years after being elected president and six months after winning a second term, President Obama today gave his first speech devoted solely to climate change and announced several executive actions to begin weaning the United States (historically the largest emitter of greenhouse gases) off fossil fuels. At Georgetown University today, Obama stated that his administration would expand renewable energy projects on federal lands, raise energy efficiency standards on appliances, and, most importantly, limit carbon pollution from both existing and new power plants, which represent about 40 percent of the U.S.'s emissions. Obama also noted that the U.S. would spearhead global efforts to combat climate change which is pushing sea levels higher, melting glaciers and sea ice, exacerbating fires, imperiling species, and worsening extreme weather worldwide.
"I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing," the president told Georgetown students. But given widespread gridlock in Congress, Obama has had to turn to executive actions through the EPA, which the Supreme Court recently ruled has the jurisdiction to regulate carbon.
"I'm directing [Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)] to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants," the president said.
Obama's long-awaited plans and speech comes five years after the U.S. Senate failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation. Following the congressional failure, climate change was largely placed on the backburner for the administration until Obama's re-election last November. Surprising many, Obama made climate change a focal point of his second inauguration speech and his State of the Union, vowing to take action on the issue—which has been almost wholly ignored by his predecessors—if Congress failed.
"Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including by the way some who originally disputed the data, have now acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it," Obama said today, citing a recent study that confirmed--once again--that the vast majority of climatologists accept climate science.
Global temperatures have risen approximately 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.44 degrees Fahrenheit) over the last hundred years, but scientists expect temperatures to rise another 1.4 degrees Celsius to 5.2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Such rapid rises in global temperatures could decimate global agriculture, coastal cities, and many ecosystems.
Obama noted that his plans would come under fire from special interests and some politicians, who would argue that the actions would cripple the economy and devastate jobs. However, Obama said, that such assertions have been wrong in the past and that action on climate change will create new industrial sectors, produce clean energy jobs, and help America stay ahead in research and development.
In fact, the Speaker of the House John Boehner (Republican-Ohio) last week called Obama's plans, which had yet to be fully released, "absolutely crazy." Meanwhile three Republicans from Virginia called Obama's proposals a "war on coal," which would raise energy prices. Obama won Virginia last November by 3 percent.
"We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society," the president said. "Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it won’t protect you from the coming storm."
Before this, Obama has already done more to reduce U.S.'s greenhouse gas emissions than any president before including raising fuel efficiency standards and supporting renewable energy projects across the country.
Obama also signaled that the administration would continue to work with every nation to tackle the global issues. In pursuing energy sources, the president said, "[developing countries] don't have to repeat all the same mistakes we've made." He called on public financing to avoid supporting any new coal plants overseas unless no other viable options were available or the plants used carbon capture technology. The World Bank has recently made a similar commitment.
As to the controversial Keystone Pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast, Obama said that the pipeline would not be approved if it worsens climate change: "our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." According to research, oil burned from the tar sands emits significantly more carbon than conventional oil.
"The hard truth is carbon pollution has built up in our atmosphere for decades now, and even if we Americans do our part, the planet will slowly keep warming for some time to come," Obama went on to say, "the seas will slowly keep rising; the storms will get more severe, based on the science. It's like tapping the brakes of a car before you come to a complete stop and then shift into reverse. It's going to take time for carbon emissions to stabilize."
Still many environmentalists and scientists say that Obama's plans, while a step in the right direction, do not go far enough.
Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow with the International Institute for Environment and Development's Climate Change Group, said the administrations plans were "too little, too late."
"While it is good to see a leader of the world's richest country and biggest cumulative polluter finally promise to take actions, after over a decade of refusal to do so, the problem has become much bigger while the US was ignoring it," he stated. "Hence the world is now headed towards 4-degree temperature rise by 2100 unless much more drastic actions are undertaken on mitigation by all countries including the United States. President Obama says he wants the U.S. to lead this effort globally. His promise is welcome, but his actions still fall short of what is required."
Obama has pledged to cut U.S. emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. While a much-less ambitious cut than the EU has put forward, he is the first U.S. president to set such a goal.
"As a president, as a father, and as an American, I'm here to say we need to act,"