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Obama climate plan: the one thing you need to know

President Obama's plan to address climate change will at most have a slight impact, Cobb writes, but it is nonetheless a brave and even historic move towards slowing the effects of climate change. 

By Kurt CobbGuest blogger / July 1, 2013

President Barack Obama wipes sweat from his head during a speech on climate change last week at Georgetown University in Washington.

Evan Vucci/AP/File

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The one thing you need to know about President Obama's plan to address climate change is that the most it will accomplish is slowing very slightly the pace at which the world is currently hurtling toward catastrophic climate change. Having said this, his plan is nonetheless a brave and even historic move in a country whose political campaigns and public discourse have been utterly poisoned by the science-free propaganda of the fossil fuel industry.

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Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, 'Prelude,' and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. He is a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas—USA, and he serves on the board of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. For more of his Resource Insights posts, click here.

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I would be more enthusiastic about the president's baby steps if the devastating droughts and floods and swiftly melting ice in the polar regions and mountain glaciers weren't telling us that drastic action is necessary right now. Nature doesn't really care about the timetables of politicians or about what is politically feasible. Nature doesn't negotiate, and it doesn't compromise. The laws of physics and chemistry cannot be repealed or altered by the Obama administration, the United States Congress or any other body. And, these physical laws are deaf to complaints about the negative economic consequences of addressing climate change--consequences that will be far worse if we do nothing about climate change.

But let me return to the goal announced by the president and put his plan into perspective. Using existing executive powers--mostly through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which the Supreme Court affirmed in 2007 has the power to regulate greenhouse gases--the Obama Administration will endeavor to reduce the RATE of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States to 17 percent below the RATE in 2005 and do this by 2020. It's a relatively easy target because half the reduction has already taken place. In recent years electric utilities have been changing from coal to cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas to fuel their plants, and drivers, stung by unemployment and high gasoline prices, have reduced their driving. 

I've put the word "RATE" in all capitals above because this one word gets to the heart of the matter. The plan does NOT propose to reduce the absolute concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the major greenhouse gas which recently topped 400 parts per million (ppm). Instead, that concentration would continue to rise--even though it is increasingly evident that we must now reduce that concentration (some say to below 350 ppm) in order to avoid the worst.

The proposed decline in the rate of U.S. emissions would only reduce the overall rate of world emissions by just 1.6 percent based on 2011 emissions figures (using carbon dioxide as a proxy for all greenhouse gas emissions). Of course, other countries will have to do their part if we are to succeed as a species in addressing climate change. But it is worth noting that while the United States is home to just 4.5 percent of the world's population, it currently produces 16.8 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. (The 2011 emissions were 5.49 billion tons for the United States and 32.58 billion tons for the world.)

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