Obama sprints into his final years with an expanding climate message

Source: Evan Lehmann, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 19, 2014

President Obama is charging into his term’s fourth quarter in a climate sprint. In the last week, he talked about cutting gasoline subsidies in Asia, urged young Australians to pressure skeptical politicians and accepted a knotty adaptation report for U.S. cities.

Those efforts came amid major announcements on a pact with China to control greenhouse gases and a $3 billion proposal to strengthen poor countries against climate impacts. Together, it signals the maneuvering of an administration that’s trying to take a lead role in upcoming international climate negotiations. It also marks a challenge to the rising Republican majority in Congress.John Podesta, Obama’s climate counselor, told reporters yesterday that the administration will “keep pushing forward on all fronts” to tackle climbing temperatures. The administration is confident that the GOP-controlled Congress, to begin in January, can’t derail its forthcoming rules to reduce emissions at power plants, despite promises by Republican leaders to make it a top target.

“I don’t believe they can stop us from doing that,” Podesta said of the rules being finalized by U.S. EPA.

The president has now expanded his public profile to include the international negotiations, which begin next month in Lima, Peru, and culminate in Paris a year later. Podesta described the deal with China as a “jolt of energy” for the climate talks.

“We have to work to complete action on the international front and get, you know, everyone in the game there,” Podesta said. “I think with the Chinese stepping out the way they did, we’ll have more ability to do that.”

During the weekend in Brisbane, Australia, Obama said at the Group of 20 summit that his pact with China shows other nations that there’s “no excuse” for failing to hammer out a treaty now that the world’s largest emitters are taking action to address carbon dioxide.

He also appeared to take a friendly jab at his host, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who campaigned before his election last year to dissolve Australia’s carbon tax. Abbott kept his promise. Obama, speaking at the University of Queensland on Saturday, urged the student audience to stand up against politicians and businesses that preserve the use of fossil fuels.

“Citizens, especially the next generation, you have to keep raising your voices because you deserve to live your lives in a world that is cleaner and that is healthier and that is sustainable,” Obama said. “But that is not going to happen unless you are heard.”

Keeping climate ‘front of mind’

A day after Obama returned from his trip across the Pacific, the administration turned to domestic climate policies. Yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden received a report by a White House task force comprising 26 local officials that offered 100 recommendations to strengthen adaptation.

The report delves into detailed suggestions about how federal programs could be improved to reduce risky development, enhance infrastructure and prepare communities overall for sharper climate impacts.

One recommendation urges the administration to promote “climate smart land-use” by rewarding local governments that build farther from shorelines, adopt strong building standards and prohibit the construction of critical facilities in the 500-year floodplain. Those communities could receive more federal funding for infrastructure and economic development, the report says.

Other recommendations include altering disaster recovery programs to prevent rebuilding in areas that are vulnerable to “foreseeable” climate conditions and strengthening the minimum building standards required by the National Flood Insurance Program.

“We are working across the government with all of the Cabinet secretaries to make sure this becomes front-of-mind as they approach their programs, their regulations, their budgets,” Mike Boots, who heads the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said of the recommendations.

The report prepared by the president’s State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience was a requirement of Obama’s Climate Action Plan, announced in June 2013. The 26 members include a geographically diverse collection of governors, mayors and tribal leaders.

“It’s so important, I think, that we try to make this a nonpartisan issue,” Jim Brainard, mayor of Carmel, Ind., said of climate change. He’s one of four Republicans on the panel.

“We cannot continue to build cities as we have in the past,” he added, noting that denser cities can save money on infrastructure like roads and reduce emissions.

Obama: ‘Old people’ made a mess

Not many Republicans are as accepting of Obama’s climate policies.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who may face a conservative challenger in 2016, has been criticized in the past for his moderate positions on immigration and cap and trade. Last week, he said Republicans who believe in climate change would find Obama’s deal with China unpalatable, because the Asian country doesn’t have to cut emissions until 2030.

He called the deal “kind of sad.”

“I think that climate change is a real concern that we should have [addressed], and I think that we are making progress in the right direction, and we should probably do more,” McCain said. “But it has to be balanced with the economy.”

While in Asia, Obama revisited one of the most contentious debates on climate change — the idea that higher energy prices will drive people to use less fossil fuels while spurring innovation of cleaner energy sources. He no longer talks publicly about that policy in the United States.

But Indonesia, for example, could meet “a very bold” carbon reduction goal by eliminating energy subsidies and reducing deforestation.

“The countries that are most efficient in energy use, not only do they not subsidize energy — in fact, they tax energy use,” Obama said at a town hall for young leaders in Myanmar on Saturday. “So you look like — in a country like Norway, which produces a lot of oil, but gasoline there is still $6 or $7 a gallon, which in liters — who wants to do a liter conversion for me? Anyway, it’s very expensive.”

He went on to say that phasing out fossil fuels might seem threatening to policymakers and businesses that receive political support, or cheap energy, from the industry.

“Because old people, they’ve created a mess, and then they’ll be gone,” Obama said to the young audience in Myanmar. “And then you — you’re the ones who have to deal with it.”