The Need to Get It Right on Climate Change

Call me an optimist.  Despite dire warnings about the future of our winters (or lack thereof), I have spent the last couple years teaching my young children to ski—a joy that has made winters a time to relish, not dread.  So I was listening to President Obama’s speech last night hoping I’d hear reason to believe that when my kids are my age, “going downhill fast” will still be a reference to a good ski run, not the state of the world’s climate.

What I heard left me a cautious optimist.  Here’s why.

The Moral Call for Climate Action

President Obama got it almost right when he declared:

[T]he debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.

I do too.  The alternative is unthinkable.  But let’s be honest, it’s our children who will look us in the eye and ask that question.  The consequences of not acting are already upon us.  We have precious little time to act.

Dirty Power Plants

The President said:

[W]e have to act with more urgency – because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods. That’s why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air.

Here we can applaud loudly.  The Administration is on course to put in place groundbreaking rules under the Clean Air Act to reduce pollution from power plants.  Rules for new power plants have been proposed and rules for existing polluting plants are set to come later in the year.  We must get strong power plant rules over the finish line.  It is a huge, unprecedented and legally required step in cleaning up our most carbon polluting sector.

Keystone XLMinnepolis Protest Obama speech

The President did not mention this controversial, export tar sands pipeline.  But in June he said he will deny the tar sands pipeline if it significantly exacerbates the problem of carbon pollution.  Studies show this pipeline will spur further destructive development of one of the dirtiest oil sources on the planet – one that is at least 17% more carbon intensive on a well to wheel basis than conventional oil.

A new USA Today poll shows that support for this tar sands pipeline continues to significantly erode the more people learn about it.  It’s a bad deal for America.  President Obama can’t approve Keystone XL if he takes the facts and the moral calling he put forth seriously.

Coal Leasing on Public Lands

The President proclaimed that:

I’ll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations.

More applause.  Making this happen is well within the President’s authority.  So let’s get to work.  A recent report commissioned by the Wilderness Society shows that thus far under the Obama Administration, policies have favored carbon polluting fossil fuel development over wildlife and land protection.

According to that report,  in 2009, “the ultimate downstream GHG emissions from fossil fuel extraction from federal lands and waters by private leaseholders could have accounted for approximately 23% of total U.S. GHG emissions and 27% of all energy-related GHG emissions” with “the majority [57%] of the 2010 emissions comes from leases for extracting coal.”

These impacts are not being accounted for.  They need to be.  Let’s make 2014 the year where policies are put in place that account for the carbon impacts of coal leasing, factor those costs into leasing decisions, and ensure that public land leasing decisions will result in the same carbon reductions required of other sectors of the economy, like power plants and transportation.

 Natural Gas
President Obama via Flickr
Here’s where there’s some room for improvement.  The President stated that:

[N]atural gas – if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change. Businesses plan to invest almost $100 billion in new factories that use natural gas. I’ll cut red tape to help states get those factories built….

Natural gas is still a fossil fuel and any bridge must be a short one.  Natural gas production has troubling environmental harms and methane – a potent greenhouse gas – pollution is an unaddressed problem that may erase much or all of the carbon advantage gas has over other fossil fuels.

It’s time to require gas producers to stop methane pollution.  This can be done affordably and effectively now.  We also need massive infrastructure investment in wildlife friendly, responsible renewable development like solar and offshore wind, not more fossil fuel plants.

Right now it’s cold outside and snow is expected later.  The forecast for the future is uncertain, but in our hands.  Let’s make sure we can tell our children we got it right.

Take Action ButtonTell the Environmental Protection Agency you support strong limits on carbon pollution to protect wildlife from climate change.