Obama’s Climate Pragmatism

President's Proposals Signal New Era for Climate Politics

President Obama’s big climate speech this week was historic, but not for the reasons many observers have suggested. To his credit, Obama is following through on his promise to pursue climate policy in “chunks” in the fall of 2010, after cap and trade had died the summer before. But these chunks are not the old climate agenda in new clothing.

Where efforts to address climate change have for the last 20 years focused on reducing national emissions through sweeping policies, like cap and trade or carbon taxes, climate policy today has shifted decisively toward smaller bore, pragmatic policies that don’t promise to eliminate the climate crisis in one fell swoop but do help us move our economy toward greater “decarbonization,” sector by sector and technology by technology. Slowly but surely, a new climate pragmatism is taking shape.

Even as the global Kyoto Protocol collapsed and cap and trade legislation foundered in Congress, US emissions have declined faster than any nation’s in the world. Cheap and clean natural gas, thanks to fracking technologies developed since the 1970s with significant support from taxpayers, has rapidly displaced coal. New fuel economy standards have helped drive down automobile emissions. Federal Clean Air Act regulations on conventional air pollutants have made it more expensive to burn coal.

The administrative actions that the President announced in his State of the Union address last February and confirmed this week should further accelerate these trends. Regulation of carbon emissions from power plants will accelerate the shift from coal to gas and new fuel economy standards on heavy trucks will help further decarbonize the transportation fleet.

A similar transition is underway internationally, with bilateral and multilateral agreements among major emitters displacing efforts to make a grand bargain to cap global emissions at the United Nations, a shift proposed by a number of critics of the 20-year effort to cap emissions, including the two of us, over the last decade, that has only to begun to bear fruit since the collapse of international climate negotiations at Copenhagen in 2009.

One thing, however, does remain unchanged. Climate politics retains its penchant for hype and hyperbole. The White House promoted Obama’s speech in advance with beauty shots of the Earth, complete with a New Age soundtrack. In his speech, the President served up the usual red meat for climate partisans, restating the well-established fact that climate change has been incontrovertibly linked to human greenhouse gas emissions while offering dubious assertions about the link between warming and present day natural disasters.

The reaction from climate partisans was swift and predictable. David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council told the New York Times it was the speech that environmentalists had waited for 20 years to hear, while former Vice President Al Gore proclaimed it the most important speech about climate change that a President had ever given. Conservatives offered matched denunciations, claiming that the modest actions announced by the President would deeply damage the economy and that the President had caved to the radical green fringe.

The truth is much more prosaic. There is still much work to do. Most of the progress we have made in recent years has been through incremental improvement to our existing fossil energy infrastructure – burning gas instead of coal and improving the efficiency of automobiles – not replacing fossil energy with alternative technologies, which will be necessary in order to achieve significantly deeper reductions in carbon emissions.

But the pathway to developing cheap, scalable zero carbon energy technologies will be much the same as the path we have taken to developing cleaner fossil energy technology – sustained public support for technology innovation and targeted policies to deploy those technologies as they begin to become competitive.

The President, to his credit, has been steadfast in his support for research and deployment of clean energy technology, although the heavy focus on renewables has left other options, particularly nuclear, wanting. But beyond the specifics, the shift in strategy and emphasis is salutary.

While the rhetoric and polarization among climate partisans appear resistant to both intervention and changing circumstances, something important is happening below the surface. However, self proclaimed climate hawks on the left and their doppelgangers on the right are likely to be the last to know.

This article first appeared in Washington Monthly.

Photo Credit: Roswell.plateautel.net