Hope and (Climate) Change
The question mark was key. In a recent talk entitled, “Change We Can Believe In?” Christopher McGrory Klyza, the Stafford Professor in Public Policy and professor of political science and environmental studies, parsed President Obama’s environmental record for progress, setbacks, and possible future action. Not surprising for the co-author of an award-winning book about recent U.S. environmental policy, Klyza went beyond a mere scorecard to suggest the subtleties of achieving any gains in the current political climate.
Klyza began by giving the full Orchard at Franklin Environmental Center some political context: Obama’s actions (or lack of them) must be weighed against his having taken office while the U.S. was fighting two wars and suffering the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Add to that a Congress that has been gridlocked—and worse—since 1990. Klyza quoted California Congressman Henry Waxman’s 2012 comment: “I have never experienced as much hostility toward the environment than exists in Congress today.” In fact, Klyza noted, recent studies show political party polarization has reached levels not seen since Reconstruction. “There’s virtually no environmental middle,” he said, referring to a graph of congressional environmental voting that showed red bars crowding the anti-environment extreme and blue bars crowding the pro-environment edge. Meanwhile, although most Americans support environmental protection, that support is too shallow to pressure politicians. “There’s support, but not salience,” he said.
Still, the Congress and Obama managed to pass two significant laws in the first term. The Omnibus Public Land Management Act consolidated 159 bills and produced the greatest expansion of the wilderness system in 15 years. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus act), invested $80 billion in energy efficiency, public transit, and renewables. What Congress and Obama didn’t pass was a comprehensive climate bill; in both the House and Senate climate and cap-and-trade bills died, Klyza said, due to overcomplexity and failed tactics. After Republicans took the House in the 2010 midterm election, Obama and the Democrats fell back into defending the “green state” from attack. (The “green state,” Klyza explained, is “the set of laws, rules, institutions, and expectations regarding conservation, pollution control, and resource management”—such as the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Forest Service, and the Antiquities Act.) That defense was successful, he said, quelling 39 anti-environmental riders attached to the House’s 2012 Interior-EPA appropriations bill designed to weaken greenhouse gas (GHG) regulation and vehicle fuel efficiency and to promote oil and gas leases in wilderness areas.
Klyza then considered some of Obama’s executive actions. His appointments of Lisa Jackson (EPA administrator), former EPA chief Carol Browner (energy czar), Van Jones (green jobs czar), and Steven Chu (energy secretary) were environmentally credible. When the EPA roused from its Bush-era slumber to respond affirmatively to the Supreme Court’s charge (Massachusetts v. EPA, 2007) that the agency determine if greenhouse gases are a “danger to public health and welfare,” the gates opened to stronger regulation of motor vehicle and power plant emissions.
For example, Klyza explained, California has the right under the Clean Air Act to seek a waiver from the EPA allowing it to require stricter motor vehicle emissions standards than those nationally set. The Bush administration denied the waiver; Obama granted it. A state and federal collaboration helped establish national greenhouse gas standards for cars and light trucks that translate into stepped limits of 35.5 mpg by 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025. Higher mpg standards for heavier vehicles were also established.
Klyza also noted that a 2011 rule requiring 90 percent cuts in mercury emissions from fossil-fueled power plants by 2016 resulted in utilities closing many older coal-fired plants (mercury pollution’s greatest source) rather than incur retrofitting costs. The EPA also tightened standards for other air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, but in a major disappointment, Obama wouldn’t support ground-level ozone reduction.
Despite a gridlocked Congress, environmental progress continues through what Klyza called “green drift.” “Green state” laws often include provisions that require review and action based on the best available science, he said, giving the example of the health consequences of particulates. New data show that lower levels than anticipated can damage human health, which requires the EPA to adopt stricter air quality standards—unless Congress intervenes. Since gridlock renders that unlikely, stricter standards accrue. In this scenario, GHG could, through green drift, decline to levels close to what the defeated Waxman-Market climate bill would have achieved through 2020, but not beyond. Unfortunately, he noted, “green drift will not lead to the fundamental changes in the U.S. economy and society that are necessary to make far deeper cuts in GHG emissions.”
Reviewing several other advances, Klyza concluded that in light of first-term pressures, “Obama’s executive politics are making a difference.” But lack of real presidential action on climate change and land conservation left many feeling “the environment never seemed on the top of his to-do list.”
And the second term? Klyza found Obama’s actions hard to predict. Changes to the National Environmental Policy Act could put “some sand in the gears of polluters,” Klyza said, by allowing some lawsuits over greenhouse gas outputs; a spokesperson for the National Association of Manufacturers responded with, “It’s got us very freaked out.” It remains to be seen what Obama will do about the Keystone XL pipeline and other planned fossil fuel infrastructure, or leasing of federal lands for coal extraction, although Klyza considers it essential that issues such as Keystone and fossil fuel divestment have made it to the front page and popular awareness.
“So how do we influence the president to keep global temperature rise below two degrees Centigrade?” a student asked during the lively question and answer period. Klyza responded, “Ceaseless pressure, ceaselessly applied.”