Combating Climate Change: President Obama's Proposal for Sustainability
It can generally be said that the planet earth and its natural resources are gifts shared by all of humanity. However, it is no secret that decades of human reliance on fossil fuels and other non-sustainable methods of energy consumption have taken a toll on the earth’s environment. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently reported that “human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global surface temperature from 1951-2010.” Climate change and global warming are expected to increase in the future and pose some very real risks to populations across the globe. The less prosperous segments of society, including low-income communities, women with children, and often communities predominantly composed of people of color, are predicted to bear the brunt of the adverse effects of climate change, since many of them are already in vulnerable positions.
Women the First to Feel Impact
When floods strike or droughts persist, women are among the first to feel the impact on their livelihoods and daily lives. As managers of household resources, women may struggle to secure water, fuel and food. As migrants and refugees pushed from areas of climatic stress, they confront greater risks of disease and violence. Children are often most vulnerable to adverse health effects from environmental hazards. A recent report issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) states, “climate change will further reduce access to drinking water, negatively affect the health of poor people, and will pose a real threat to food security in many countries…”
Rising sea levels are expected to increase coastal flooding; more frequent droughts will decimate annual crop yields, leading to higher food prices; and decreased air quality may raise the rate of birth defects found in given populations. Rev. Marta Benavides, an El Salvadoran environmental and economic activist, explains, “People are dying of hunger because the floods destroy the crops—hundreds, no thousands of indigenous children in Guatemala will not develop their brains correctly because of the floods due to climate change.” While international efforts to tackle climate change have at times stalled due to political debates and disagreements over the actual causes of climate change, most contemporary scientific research presents sound evidence that human pollution sources (i.e. carbon emissions) have been major contributors to the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases and subsequent global warming. Industrialized nations are the biggest contributors of carbon dioxide emissions in the world, with the top ten polluters ranked as follows: 1) China, 2) United States, 3) India, 4) Russia, 5) Japan, 6) Germany, 7) South Korea, 8) Canada, 9) Indonesia, and 10) Saudi Arabia.
Extreme Weather Patterns
In 2012, the United States not only experienced its warmest year on record but also endured 11 different severe climate and weather events that resulted in over $110 billion in damages. 2012 was the second most costly year in American history in terms of severe weather damages. The increase of extreme weather patterns across the United States, such as record-high temperatures, devastating storms (i.e. Hurricane Sandy), and widespread wildfires across the Southwest, are prompting decisive action from our government to address the issue of climate change head on. With these facts in mind, mitigating the effects of climate change has moved up on the political agenda of the Obama Administration during its second term. The PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency states, “While no single step can reverse the effects of climate change, we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted and damaged. Through steady, responsible action to cut carbon pollution, we can protect our children’s health and begin to slow the effects of climate change so that we leave behind a cleaner, more stable environment.” U.S. decisions and priorities not only affect Americans, but the entire global community. As the second largest global polluter, the U.S. has been particularly slow in taking steps to curb its carbon emissions, and often these steps have been insufficient.
Obama Unveils Climate Action Plan
On June, 25, 2013, in a speech at Georgetown University, President Obama unveiled his multi-point Climate Action plan to significantly cut American carbon pollution and combat global climate change. Within this action alert is the President’s outlined national climate change initiative, which has the goals of reducing America’s carbon pollution output, increasing the implementation of more sustainable means of energy production, and lessening the inevitable impacts of climate change on the U.S. population.
First on his outlined agenda was the task of reducing carbon pollution from domestic power plants. In 2009, the President pledged to cut America’s greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2020, albeit with the cooperation of the international community. Since American power plants produce nearly 40 percent of all domestic greenhouse gas pollution, the administration has pegged stemming carbon pollution from these massive structures as a top priority of their climate change initiative. In line with the 2020 goal, the Obama administration has issued a Presidential Memorandum to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urging it to create a national carbon emissions standard for both new and existing power plants.
Second on the agenda was the goal of accelerating clean energy leadership in the United States. President Obama has set the goal of doubling domestic renewable electricity generation by the year 2020 and has budgeted to increase funding for clean energy technology by 30 percent across all federal agencies. This effort includes: issuing permits for 10 gigawatts of renewables on public lands, deploying 3 gigawatts of renewable energy technologies on military installations, and updating the national electric grid to make it more energy efficient.
The third point the President made was building a cleaner, more energy efficient transportation sector. Heavy duty vehicles such as trucks, vans and buses are the second largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the transportation sector. By enacting the fuel economy standards proposed by the Obama Administration on heavy duty vehicles, the nation stands to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 230 metric tons and save 530 million barrels of oil. The administration has also endorsed the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) regulations of the EPA that stipulate all transportation fuel sold in the United States must contain a minimum volume of renewable fuel.
Next, the President proposed to reduce energy waste in American homes, businesses and factories by increasing energy efficiency and by expanding the Better Buildings Challenge initiated in 2011. The United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) will update its Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program to provide up to $250 million for rural utilities to finance efficiency investments. The Department of Housing and Urban Development also is launching a $23 million Multifamily Energy Innovation Fund designed to enable affordable housing providers, technology firms, academic institutions, and philanthropic organizations to test new approaches to deliver cost-effective residential energy.
In line with the goal of reducing carbon emissions from U.S. power plants, the Obama Administration is also seeking to diminish other environmentally dangerous greenhouse gases such as hydroflourocarbons (HFCs) and methane. Hydroflourocarbons are primarily used in cooling systems like refrigeration and air conditioning. Methane gas is produced from various sources ranging from coal mines to landfills. This vapor has a global warming potential that is 20 times greater than carbon dioxide. The last point of the President’s climate change proposal dealt with the role of federal leadership and enhancing multilateral engagement with other countries. Even though President Obama has pledged that the federal government will lead the way in combating climate change and has proposed that the fed will consume 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020—which is more than double its current goal of 7.5 percent—American pollution levels currently remain slightly higher than the levels recommended by the 1997 International Kyoto Protocol.
Recognizing the inevitable impacts climate change will have on the United States, President Obama stated that he will push three primary interrelated initiatives:
- building stronger and safer communities and infrastructure
- protecting our economy and natural resources
- using sound science to manage climate impact
Some details of the prescribed efforts include: identifying vulnerabilities of key sectors to climate change, conserving land and water resources, and providing a toolkit for climate resilience.
Some Withhold Support
The announcement was generally well received by the public. Much of what was proposed by the President was found in H.R. 2452: the “American Clean Energy and Security Act” (2009), which failed to be ratified by the Senate after passing by a narrow margin in the House. Since the President’s current plan will be implemented through executive action, Congress can derail the initiative through the budget and appropriations committee. Moreover, some congressional representatives are withholding their support of the President’s plan to reduce carbon emissions, citing disadvantages to the American energy sector and job losses in states where coal mining is a big industry employer. Senator Dean Heller, Senator Joe Manchin and House Speaker John Boehner have all expressed their disapproval of the climate change initiative and are seeking to effectively block or diminish most of the measures proposed. Sen. Manchin even went so far as to characterize the President’s plan as a “war on America.”
While most detractors of the President’s climate change initiative fall along partisan lines, some of the plan’s supporters are also critical of it not being comprehensive enough. One major criticism leveled by the environmental activist community is that there was very little mention of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project in Obama’s speech, except for saying that steps will be taken to make sure the pipeline would not significantly increase climate pollution. All indicators show the project that will transport crude oil directly from Canada across the United States to refineries in Texas is still supported by the President, to the dismay of many environmentalists. Outside the White House, in a protest against the KXL pipeline, a spokesman for 350.org stated, “The President and Secretary Kerry have both said that they are committed to acting on climate change and that’s a good thing. But if they are really serious, then they must stop Keystone XL. It’s the first test of their resolve.” Other critics claim that through tighter regulations and standards on the energy sector costs will inevitably fall back upon the consumer.
Even though President Obama’s goal of reducing emissions by 17 percent by 2020 is praiseworthy, given the scientific evidence on global warming it is estimated that the world needs to cut its global emissions by at least 80 percent to prevent carbon dioxide levels from exceeding 400 ppm in the new decade, thus keeping global temperature rise to a minimum. The President has also unconditionally affirmed natural gas as the primary transitional energy source to cleaner alternatives. However, the problem with natural gas lies in its method of extraction. "Fracking," as it is commonly termed, pumps a mixture of fresh water and hazardous chemicals into deep ground wells in order to release natural gas trapped in subterranean shale deposits. This technology often leaves local water sources polluted and has been shown to contribute to increased seismic activity. A recent article published in the Wall Street Journal reported that fracking and oil extraction activities in southern Texas have contributed to a series of minor earthquakes in the region. These methods are not environmentally safe and ultimately do little to curb ecological degradation.
The International Effort
Fortunately some developing nations are utilizing innovative ways to fight against climate change on their own. For instance, Ugastove CEO Rehema Nakyazze is using an inexpensive, sustainable invention to lessen carbon emissions and slow deforestation in Uganda. Most Ugandans still cook over open fires that use a lot of charcoal and wood, which are significant contributors to local deforestation, carbon pollution, and diminished air quality in households. Ugastove is a small portable stove insulated with clay so that it conserves more heat and uses half the charcoal of traditional cookers. This simple device is just one example of how indigenous populations are using innovation to combat climate change.
Some industrialized nations have also chipped in on the international effort to assist developing nations in curbing their carbon emissions. Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and the U.S. pledged nearly $200 million in climate adaptation investment to the world’s poorest countries in 2013. Managed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the international funds are designated to assist less developed nations with their climate change adaptation measures. GEF CEO Naoko Ishii comments, “Evidence around the globe calls for concerted action on mitigation, but also on adaptation and preparedness. The adaptation program of the GEF addresses these challenges through concrete adaptation actions that contribute to poverty alleviation, build resistance in all development sectors including food security, and build capacity for disaster risk management and prevention.”
The plan outlined by the Obama Administration is a progressive step in the right direction in the fight against climate change and global warming, but your assistance is needed to make sure we continue on the right path and do more than the bare minimum. Help ensure the Obama Administration’s climate change initiative is enacted and continue to combat climate change.
Contact your congressional representatives and tell them not to stand in the way of progress on climate change. Let them know you support President Obama’s Climate Action plan and other environmentally progressive measures such as H.R. 1943 -“Super Pollutant Emissions Reduction Act of 2013” and S. 332 -“Climate Protection Act of 2013.”
Join the fight in urging against construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and the utilization of Fracking technologies. Visit grassroots organizations such Green for All and the Sierra Club for useful information and ways to become part of the movement for green justice.
Watch the Aljazeera network series “Earthrise” for the latest in environmental news and developments. Also, watch the award winning documentary Gasland to learn more about Fracking and its associated costs.
Use the Carbon Footprint calculator on UMW’s website to see how some of your everyday activities may contribute to pollution, and then discover simple ways to reduce, reuse, and conserve.
Combat climate change and global warming on your own by implementing a few simple steps in your everyday life:
- Recycle plastics, tins, glass, and paper.
- Use washable dish cloths, sponges and napkins.
- Buy recycled or reusable products.
- Read The New Yorker article, “The President and the Pipeline”
- Read Resolution 1026, “Environmental Stewardship” (pages 80 – 95), in The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church (2012)
Learn more about new EPA regulations for power plants.
For more information contact: Susie Johnson – Washington Office of Public Policy
100 Maryland Avenue, NE, Suite 100; Washington D.C. 20002