Obama’s Climate Plan: Buh-Bye, Big Coal

In a surprise, the President says that the controversial Keystone XL pipeline should not be approved if it will increase greenhouse gas emissions.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Georgetown University about his vision to reduce carbon pollution while preparing the country for the impacts of climate change. (Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters)


Jun 25, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A climate blogger, RL is chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus.

In a major speech on climate change, President Obama laid out a specific second-term plan to limit carbon pollution that contributes to global warming, telling students in the crowd at Georgetown University that he refuses to "condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing."

While the meat of the speech centered on ordering the EPA to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants (as well as pledging that the federal government draw 20 percent of its power from renewables by 2020), the President did throw greens two very big, and very welcome, surprises.

First, Obama hinted, for the first time, that the Keystone XL pipeline might not be approved—and for climate-related reasons.

"Our national interest will be served only if this project doesn't significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution," Obama said. "The net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project can go forward."

In other words, it's possible the pipeline might be built, if the Canadian tar sands will continue to be exploited and shipped by rail or truck. But, as climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann noted, "Since all objective analyses indicated that the construction of the pipeline will lead to increased carbon emissions (because it will lead to far greater extraction of Canadian tar sands), this should translate to a decision not to move forward on that project."

In either case, framing Keystone XL as a carbon polluter rather than a jobs creator is a positive step.

But the bigger surprise was one oblique line near the end: "invest, divest."

Climate activists at 350.org and elsewhere who are pushing universities to divest from fossil fuels interpret it as Presidential approval of their goal, modeled on the 1980s movement to divest American universities from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa. MSNBC host Chris Hayes calls it "the most crypto-radical line the President has ever uttered."

But back to the plan's centerpiece: ordering the EPA to regulate the emissions on existing power plants. These were mandated by a 2007 Supreme Court decision; Bush avoided them completely, Obama waited until his fifth year to begin them, and it'll take years before the regulations come into effect. Although the plan—the nitty gritty details of which can be found here—is billed as one that doesn't need to pass in Congress, it will need to pass the third coequal branch of government: the federal courts. Challenges to Environmental Protection Agency rules on existing power plants are sure to be aggressively litigated by affected power plants.

By and large, greens were very pleased with the speech.

Former Vice President Al Gore hailed Obama's words as, "by far the best address on climate by any president ever." Grist super blogger Dave Roberts tweeted: "Speech is strong. This is what greens have wanted, right? A high-profile, bully-pulpit attack on climate?"

The speech's requisite call-to-arms passage came near the end, when Obama pleaded with young Americans to become the climate radicals that will lead a nationwide eco-movement:

I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat earth society.

Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm. And ultimately, we will be judged as a people and as a society and as a country on where we go from here.

Our founders believed that those of us in positions of power are elected not just to serve as custodians of the present, but as caretakers of the future. And they charged us to make decisions with an eye on a longer horizon than the arc of our own political careers. That’s what the American people expect. That’s what they deserve. And someday our children and our children’s children will look at us in the eye and they’ll ask us, did we do all that we could, when we had the chance, to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world? And I want to be able to say, yes, we did. Don’t you want that?

Americans are not a people who look backwards. We’re a people who look forward. We’re not a people who fear what the future holds; we shape it.

But, as with any Presidential speech, words are word are words.

Stay tuned to see what, if any, of these proposals Obama actually achieves before he leaves office in January 2017.