Monday, August 03, 2015

Obama's last big push on climate change

President Barack Obama is looking to stake his place in history by pushing through an ambitious climate change bill for America.
Arguably, Obama's early promise has dwindled to a somewhat underwhelming culmination, hamstrung as he has been for most of his tenure by an irksome Republican majority in Congress. His legacy, though, already stands on major domestic breakthroughs in immigration, healthcare and same-sex marriage, as well as foreign policy initiatives regarding Cuba and Iran. Not too shabby. But a climate change shift has always been a major plank of his platform and, as his administration begins to wind down, this is his big push on that file.
The legislation aims to reduce US dependance on dirty coal for electricity generation and boost the contribution of renewables, particularly wind and solar power. Currently, 40% of American power comes from coal and just 5% from renewables. By 2030, the plan visualizes 28% of US energy will come from renewables, and 27% from coal. It anticipates a reduction of greenhouse house gas (GHG) emissions from electricity generation of around 32% compared to baseline 2005 values (electricity is responsible for about a third of America's total GHG emissions, the largest single source). GHGs from American power plants have already fallen by 15% between 2005 and 2013, meaning that they are already halfway to the target.
It seeks to do this by setting a GHG reduction target for each state and providing financial incentives for investment in renewables and for cleaning up the existing coal power industry. It would then be left largely up to the individual states to find their own ways of achieving the targets. Crucially, the plan can be administered through existing Clean Air Act legislation, so that congressional approval would not be needed to pass the ruling. This was made possible by the 2009 US Supreme Court ruling that high carbon dioxide levels leading to climate change do in fact constitute a dangerous pollutant that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger both public health and public welfare, a ground-breaking development in itself.
However, it is still vulnerable to legal challenges, and lawsuits have long been in preparation by various states and power utilities, even before the official unveiling of the initiative. The plan splits America deeply along party lines, with most Democrats (and Democratic leadership hopefuls) in support, and with Republicans (and major Republican nomination contenders) expressing vehement opposition. Because of the nature of American politics and demographics, this also manifests as a geographical split, with the more urbanized and liberal east and west coasts in support, and the more rural and regressive south and central regions opposing.
An open letter has been signed by 365 major US businesses and investors (including eBay, Nestle, General Mills, Unilever, L'Oreal, Levi Strauss, Staples, SunEdison, and Trillium Asset Management) expressing their strong support for the bill, which they say would benefit the economy and create jobs, and would not be the economic disaster the Republicans are claiming.
Coming as it does from the world's richest and.most influential country, this is a big deal. Yes, it will be divisive. It may even prove expensive. But it may just provide the moral leadership and role model needed by those countries (Canada included) that are dragging their feet on climate change action. Whether the Republicans allow it to see the light of day, or close it down with legal battles and obfuscation, is another matter entirely.

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