Climate Concerns: Is President Obama's Plate Too Full?

The Nobel Peace Prize committee last week cited President Obama's initiative in strengthening the U.S. role in combating climate change as one of the reasons for giving him one of the world's biggest awards.

The president has spoken out strongly for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and in his young presidency, he's taken a number of actions on the environmental front.

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But between lobbying lawmakers and the public on health care reform, trying to help the economy, and working out a future strategy for Afghanistan, the question is whether the administration will have enough political capital left to tackle the issue of climate change.

Some policy analysts say more has been done on the environmental front in the last nine months than in the past several years combined.

The administration has "taken important steps already," said Michael A. Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations and a proponent of climate change legislation. "It clearly has not been priority number one, but it's something they've been engaged in."

The House passed its version of a climate bill in June, and Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have introduced a bill in the Senate that would require greenhouse gas emissions be cut by 20 percent by 2020. Additionally, the Obama administration introduced new fuel efficiency and mileage standards in May, the toughest ever implemented for the United States.

Earlier this month, Obama signed an executive order to set emissions targets for federal agencies. He has also called for investments in green projects through the stimulus package and held talks with Chinese leaders to discuss climate change policy.

"They've done in nine months more than eight years, and it's just the beginning because many of the programs have to be implemented... and many are being designed," said Maggie L. Fox, chief executive and president of The Alliance for Climate Protection, a nonprofit environmental group. "It's really a difference of light and dark."

The administration has been active mainly on three fronts, said Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University Law School.

"They are advocating the enactment of legislation by Congress. Second, they are proceeding with EPA regulation of greenhouse gases under the existing laws, especially the Clean Air Act. And third, they are actively engaged in international discussions," Gerrard said.

Even though the president has taken what many say are likely to be important steps on the climate change front, he's likely to face mounting pressure in the coming months, especially as delegates prepare to convene in Copenhagen in December for the United Nations climate change conference.

Climate Change Challenges

For one, while Obama has called it a priority to control greenhouse gases, there is a great deal of uncertainty about an international agreement and what that might entail.

"There's still a lot that needs to be resolved and it's very fluid right now," said Levi, who supports climate change legislation.

One chief concern, domestically and internationally, is cost. The president, speaking at the United Nations last month, encouraged countries to help developing nations meet emissions targets. But according to the New York Times, some economists estimate that a new climate agreement could cost up to $100 billion a year by 2020, with some putting the number even higher, at up to $1 trillion.

Developing nations, such as India, are hesitant to jump on board the international bandwagon because of such concerns. China, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has also been less than eager to commit.

In the United States, the House climate bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has faced some backlash. Critics say it would increase costs for companies that have to pay a fine for emitting greenhouse gases above certain levels. Utilities and other industries that emit heat-trapping gases would have to buy permits for their emissions, and they will be able to trade pollution permits between themselves. There will also be a similar program for hydrofluorocarbons.

This "cap and trade" system was first set up for sulfur dioxide by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment, which many environmentalists consider a milestone in recent history.

On Wednesday, director of the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office, Doug Elmendorf, told senators the cap and trade system is a cost effective way to reduce emissions, but that these provisions would reduce U.S. GDP by roughly half a percent in 2020 and by between 1 to 3 percent by 2050. He added that real GDP will be roughly two and a half times as large in 2050 as it is today, so those changes would be comparatively modest.

Other criticis say new climate change legislation will cost Americans their jobs as the focus switches to more green jobs and clean technology.

"The bigger challenge is making sure that the costs aren't concentrated on particular vulnerable people and that's what a lot of the legislation effort has been aimed at," Levi said.

Optimism on Climate Change Legislation

Supporters of the bill say the cost of inaction exceeds the material costs.

"When you look at the entire picture, the costs were remarkely low and they don't kick in until 2020. If you look at the costs of inaction besides that, it becomes a very compelling action," Fox said.

Despite the challenges facing the administration in meeting expectations and dealing with critics, proponents of tougher climate change rules say the Obama administration has taken big leaps ahead from the previous administration.

"The contrast with the Bush administration is very strong," Levi said. "They took some constructive steps in the last couple of years of the administration, but the domestic efforts the Obama administration is pursuing are sharply different than what the Bush administration was after."

Experts say the Bush administration was especially quiet on the international front, and Obama's rhetoric -- even if it's just that so far -- still shows a commitment to the issue and hence, has earned him praise.

"Under the prior administration, the U.S. government was generally seen as the biggest impediment to an international agreement," Gerrard said. "Today, the U.S. government clearly wants an international agreement. The big question will be how far along the road toward domestic regulation will we be when Copenhagen takes place."

Obama is not the first president to take an active role on this front. President Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, supported the Kyoto Protocol, part of the U.N. international environment treaty, but they failed to get support from Congress. President Carter also supported stronger environmental legislation.

But the most environmentally-active presidents were Richard Nixon and Theodore Roosevelt, said Gerrard.

"This is mostly forgotten, but most of the great modern environmental statutes were enacted under President Nixon," he said. "Theodore Roosevelt was a famous conservationist who played a major role in the creation of the national park system.

"President Obama is doing a terrific job but he's not the first pro-environment president," Gerrard said.

Analysts say climate change legislation is likely to see the light of day in the near future, even though it may take many more months to formulate. And unlike other arenas -- such as health care -- where bipartisanship has dried up, several Republicans are urging more action on climate. In a New York Times op-ed co-authored with Kerry, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., pushed the need to get speedy legislation.

"Our partnership represents a fresh attempt to find consensus that adheres to our core principles and leads to both a climate change solution and energy independence," the senators said in the op-ed Sunday. "We speak with one voice in saying that the best way to make America stronger is to work together to address an urgent crisis facing the world."