Obama's climate plan won't put out the fire

Nicole Colson analyzes Barack Obama's plan to curb carbon emissions--and shows that much stronger action will be necessary to tackle the problem of climate change.

The effect of a drought in Georgia (Mark N.)

THE "most important action any president has taken to address the climate crisis." America's "strongest-ever climate action." An example of "visionary leadership necessary to reduce emissions and to tackle climate change."

It would be an understatement to say that the mainstream press was effusive in praising Barack Obama's plan to stem climate change--dubbed the "Clean Power Plan"--unveiled earlier this month.

According to the narrative, Obama, with nothing left to lose at the close of his presidency, is finally focusing on creating a legacy of real change, rather than playing politics with the Republicans. Thus, he's doing now what he should have long ago and directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to tighten existing regulations on U.S. power plants in order to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the main driver of climate change.

But when some of the loudest applause for Obama's "visionary" plan comes from corporate polluters themselves, we should be more than skeptical that what Obama is proposing is in any way a game-changer for the environment.

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OBAMA'S "CLEAN Power Plan" calls for power plants in the U.S. to cut carbon dioxide emissions to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Currently, power plants are responsible for more than a third of U.S. carbon emissions each year.

A drastic reduction in emissions would be welcome, especially in light of the overwhelming evidence of climate change and annual warming trends. Until this point, there had essentially been no federal regulation of the amount of carbon emissions such plants could produce. This led White House adviser Brian Deese to claim that the new EPA rules represented the "biggest step that any single president has made to curb the carbon pollution that is fueling climate change."

Obama's Republican opponents agreed, describing his proposals as "climate radicalism." But the truth is that the new regulations are far short of what's needed to stop climate change.

Politico's Michael Grunwald reported that the regulations were designed not to be radical. "After she released the draft plan last June, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy told me her goal was something 'doable, reasonable, and practical,' not something utopian," Grunwald said.

As has been the case in the past, "doable, reasonable and practical" translates to "toothless" and "industry-friendly."

For example, the 32 percent reduction goal may sound substantial, but CO2 emissions from U.S. power plants fell 15 percent between 2005 and 2013--largely through replacement of old plant infrastructure and a shift toward natural gas and some renewables. So the U.S. is already halfway to this supposedly "ambitious" target. As Grunwald wrote:

[T]he ongoing transformation of the U.S. grid--a shift from carbon-intensive coal to lower-carbon natural gas and zero-carbon renewables, plus a general easing of electricity demand--has already gotten us almost halfway to that goal, and the Clean Power Plan hasn't even taken effect yet. Utilities would have to cut emissions less than 1 percent a year to make it the rest of the way. At that tepid rate, it's hard to see how America could fulfill Obama's genuinely ambitious recent pledge to cut our entire economy's emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025, since the coal-heavy power sector is clearly our lowest-hanging fruit.

Grunwald went on to note that since coal-fired plants produce 75 percent of the electricity sector's emissions, the Obama administration should target coal specifically, but instead, the plan "doesn't really aim to accelerate the decline" in coal. On the contrary:

the EPA expects the decline of coal to abate somewhat under the Clean Power Plan, even though the average coal plant is over 40 years old, nobody is planning new coal plants, and the coal industry is already scrambling to comply with a barrage of new clean-air and clean-water regulations that have nothing to do with carbon.

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IT'S TRUE that the coal industry in particular complained about the Obama regulations. Mike Duncan, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in a statement after the proposal was released that the EPA "is pursuing an illegal plan that will drive up electricity costs and put people out of work." And as the Responding to Climate Change website pointed out, utility companies and numerous state governments are already threatening to drown the regulations in a "tsunami" of litigation that will take years to work its way through the courts.

But much of the energy industry hasn't expressed hard opposition to the regulations. As the New Republic wrote:

The American Petroleum Institute said in a statement that it "opposes the rule because it oversteps the authority given to the EPA under the Clean Air Act." Even as it registered its complaint, the oil lobby tellingly didn't pledge to fight the proposal. And the plan gives natural gas a boost, even if it isn't as much as the industry would like. "We are confident about the role that natural gas can and will play in America's clean power future," America's Natural Gas Alliance commented.

Many businesses are in favor of the new regulations--precisely because they don't threaten profits for the industry at large and may actually give a boost to other forms of energy, even those that are heavily polluting.

This was made clear by a recent letter sent from 365 businesses to 29 state governors praising the plan. According to the Guardian, signatories to the letter included "Unilever, L'Oréal, Levi Strauss, Staples, renewable energy company SunEdison and Trillium Asset Management, which manages $2.2 billion in assets." Many of the companies on the list--including Nestlé and Unilever, have lengthy records of pollution.

Just consider the language that Mindy Lubber--the president of Ceres, the network of investors that organized the letter--hailed-as-strongest-ever-climate-action-by-a-us-president">used in describing Obama's plan to the Guardian: "The clean power plan is the right measure at the right time. It's a flexible, practical and economically sound blueprint to transition America toward a low-carbon future."

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OTHER MAJOR failings of Obama's Clean Power Plan include the fact that it doesn't impose hard emissions limits on states, but instead gives them "targets"--and allows them the leeway to decide best how to meet those targets. Thus, Grunwald wrote:

While overwrought critics squeal about bureaucratic tyranny, the EPA's documents outlining its plan are almost laughably deferential, full of references to "maximizing flexibility," "making sure states have the flexibility they need," "offering states broad flexibility," and so on.

According to Grunwald, some of the most coal-dependent states with the most outdated and pollution-causing plants "have some of the weakest targets for reducing their emissions." Despite Republican rhetoric about the "war on coal," the targets set for Kentucky, West Virginia, Wyoming and Indiana are so low that they likely won't need to shut down any additional power plants, but can reach their goals simply by making already planned improvements through replacing inefficient coal boilers.

Beyond the underwhelming targets, there is another major flaw with Obama's climate change plan: Its default is essentially a "cap-and-trade" system, allowing polluters to offload their burden to reduce emissions. As Will Oremus wrote at Slate.com, the new EPA regulations "allow state governments to set up carbon trading markets, as many analysts had anticipated. They essentially make cap and trade the default mechanism for states that don't want to comply."

As long as the EPA plan isn't held up in court--and due to previous rulings allowing the agency leeway in regulating CO2 emissions, insiders don't expect it to be--state governments that fail to submit their own plans to reduce emissions by the 2016 deadline--which can be extended to 2018--would have their emissions restricted by the EPA, but would still be allowed to trade credits with power plants, both in their own state and elsewhere in the country to meet those reduction goals.

Cap-and-trade is a favorite model of the industry. It essentially allows some of the worst polluters to buy their way out of regulation by relocating or building new plants and infrastructure in less polluted areas when needed. Cap-and-trade doesn't stop pollution, but merely shifts the burden to different (usually poor and working class) communities.

As author Chris Williams, a member of the System Change Not Climate Change network, recently stated in an interview with the Real News Network, Obama's plan:

just ratifies what's already happening in the U.S. economy. So it's neither groundbreaking nor historic, because the percentage declines in emissions from the power sector are already on track to happen as a result of wider changes to do with the low cost of natural gas and the retirement of old coal plants. And the fact that you're giving states with dirtier energy more and more time to change and flexibility around that question, including counting nuclear power towards clean power credits, I think illustrates that this is neither groundbreaking nor anywhere near the kind of action we need to avert dangerous climate change.

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COMBINED WITH the Obama administration's overall pathetic record on the environment, the Clean Power Plan looks less "visionary" and more designed to quiet those who want to hold corporate polluters accountable and transition away from the real driver of climate change--the production of fossil fuels.

It's important to remember that the Obama administration took the lead in pushing for the construction of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline and promoting the expansion of the fracking industry.

Obama even invoked the threat that climate change poses to Alaskans in his video announcement of the Clean Power Plan. Of course, he failed to note his own role in accelerating climate change and polluting the Arctic by giving approval for Royal Dutch Shell to drill for Arctic offshore oil in the Chukchi Sea near Alaska.

As environmental group Greenpeace noted in a statement:

On its own, the Clean Power Plan is depressingly insufficient and unambitious. And in the light of the Obama administration's disastrous desire to expand extraction and export of federal coal, oil and gas, it looks even worse.

President Obama clearly wants to be seen as a climate champion, but this tepid EPA rule is one more indication that he may intend to lean more heavily on public relations than meaningful action. In light of his administration's proactive expansion of coal, oil and gas projects, climate legacy marketing may be a losing strategy. This marketing approach is clear from EPA's own gross exaggeration of the impact of this rule.

What's more, the focus on coal emission reductions inside the U.S. obscures the grim reality that U.S. coal is likely to be more heavily exported to countries like China. In other words, the environmentally damaging production of fossil fuels will continue, along with all of the health problems and pollution associated with coal--but it will happen overseas.

That's why strategies for combatting climate change that focus on emissions targets, rather than the bigger and more necessary challenge of ending the production of fossil fuels--which would require a transition to a different model of production--will ultimately fail.

Speaking about Obama's environmental legacy and the hope that Democrats will take a lead on fighting climate change, Chris Williams said in his Real News interview:

[T]here is an enormous opportunity to build up a new movement that actually takes climate change seriously, as the scientists tell us we need to be. But that's going to require strongly anti-capitalist measures, because we're not just talking about emissions, but primarily talking about reduction. That means changes to the way things are made and the way we transport those things and ourselves from one place to another place. If that's still 80 percent-plus based on fossil fuels we have a significant problem.

Nothing is addressing that so far. So the only way we're going to get the kind of changes that we want is to actually take to the streets and get organizing on an ongoing basis, as has been happening in Portland against Shell's drilling rig as it heads off to the Arctic.

Much more needs to be built up, because this is going to require a mass mobilization of people all across the world in order to affect the kind of change we want. Because it's an existential threat to human civilization...We are faced with a choice: Capitalism or a future for the planet. I would rather choose the planet.

Chris Williams contributed to this article.