Will President Obama Address Climate Change in the State of the Union?
By Andrew Steer
When President Obama addresses the nation on Tuesday, climate change is expected to be featured. The President recently said that one of his personal passions is "leaving a planet that is as spectacular as the one we inherited from our parents and our grandparents." The next two years will determine if his administration can meet this standard.
Seven months have passed since the President announced the Climate Action Plan. Now it's time to implement the plan. Simply put, this year is when the rubber hits the road.
We'll be listening to hear if the President is ready to recommit to strong actions on climate change in the coming year—and beyond. Doing so would increase the resiliency of U.S. companies and communities while affirming U.S. leadership overseas.
The warning signs are clear. Last year was tied for the fourth warmest in history worldwide. California experienced its driest year on record. Meanwhile, the U.S. suffered through $7 billion extreme weather disasters, including deadly flooding in Colorado and ongoing droughts in the Southwest.
At the same time, there are some encouraging developments. At the World Economic Forum last week, more businesses recognized the mounting risks of climate change. The New York Times reported that companies, such as Coca-Cola and Nike, are finding ways to cope with water stress and supply chain risks associated with a warming planet. Multinationals, like ExxonMobil and Walmart, are already incorporating a shadow price on carbon emissions into their strategic plans.
Much more can—and should—be done. Following are some ideas that the President could lay out in his address. These actions would show that the administration is serious about forging ahead with climate action.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is headed toward a critical June 1 deadline to introduce emissions standards for existing power plants. This is the single most significant action the administration can take. The power sector is the largest source of greenhouse emissions, representing one-third of the U.S. total. EPA standards can be both ambitious and flexible. Simply put, it's time to put limits on carbon dioxide pollution, just as we do on other harmful air pollutants.
The President can also make commitments to move forward by reducing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), pollutants found in refrigerants and air conditioning. The administration has been working to phase down HFCs through bilateral agreements with China and amendments to the Montreal Protocol. Beyond these international actions, the EPA can use the Clean Air Act to further ratchet down domestic HFCs.
Proliferation of natural gas has been a boon to U.S. energy security and the economy. But, harmful methane leakage threatens to undermine the climate benefits of natural gas relative to coal. A recent study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that methane leaked or vented during oil and gas production may be five times greater than recent EPA estimates. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has found that implementation of existing technologies could slash fugitive methane emissions and boost the bottom line for business.
The U.S. can make progress on renewable energy and energy efficiency as well. The government can provide incentives to expand clean energy production, like wind and solar, that will drive innovation and create jobs. In addition, there are at least 34 energy efficiency standards available for appliances and equipment that are currently awaiting approval by the Obama administration. These measures would lower energy use, cut emissions, and save consumers some $26 billion.
Two new studies coming this year should bolster the economic case for climate action. First, Risky Business, a study under the supervision of Michael Bloomberg, Henry Paulson and Tom Steyer, will assess the risks of climate change to the U.S. economy.
Second, the New Climate Economy, commissioned by seven countries and led by a team of top economists and research institutes (including WRI), will investigate the economic risks and benefits of addressing climate change. Both reports will be published before the UN Secretary General's summit on climate change in September—a moment when eyes around the world will be watching to see if the U.S. will step forward on this issue.
With signs that climate change is rising on the international agenda, U.S. leadership could drive momentum toward a strong, universal climate agreement, which is expected to be forged in Paris in 2015. In order to get there, countries have agreed to put their climate commitments on the table by the first quarter of 2015. Last week, Europe presented its initial offer—a goal of cutting emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels. This is a good start, though short of what's ultimately needed. The U.S. will need to create the framework of its offer this year—setting strong climate targets beyond 2020 would raise the bar for other countries.
Some may say that this is impossible. Others will point to current political dynamics in Washington and urge caution. We would argue that the opposite is true.
Climate change is a threat that knows no political bounds. Just look to the mayors around the country, from both parties, who are coping with local climate impacts, such as rising seas that threaten coastal communities, or droughts that shrivel corn stocks. From Norfolk to Miami to Salt Lake City, mayors are forging ahead. They understand the risks. They are not waiting. Neither should the federal government.
Will President Obama send a bold message on climate change? Certainly, the administration deserves credit for the strides it has made thus far. Now, the president can ensure that his administration lives up to its responsibility to truly tackle the climate challenge.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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