When it comes to energy and climate policy, President Obama will likely have more luck reaching across borders than he will reaching across the aisle.
This week, Mr. Obama is pressuring world leaders to reduce global emissions as he and more than 100 other heads of state meet for the UN climate change summit in New York. The summit comes as a reluctant Congress at home largely opposes Obama’s goals of promoting renewable energy and protecting against extreme weather associated with climate change. In November, Republicans could very well take both houses of Congress, which would further challenge Obama’s domestic climate agenda.
Still, the president is eager to find a workaround – both at home and overseas – to secure his legacy as the first president to spearhead major action against climate change.
“We are taking this summit seriously, both to show the world that the United States is committed to leading the fight against climate change and to call on other leaders to step up to the plate, to raise their level of ambition to take on climate change,” said John Podesta, counselor to the president, on a call with reporters last week.
This week, the Obama administration is hammering away at climate on all fronts, with Secretaries of Energy, Agriculture, Treasury, and Transportation fanning out across the country to discuss green jobs and clean energy.
The administration hopes these appearances – as well as initiatives the president is expected to announce Tuesday – will be bold enough to coax other nations into setting ambitious climate targets ahead of next December’s UN talks in Paris. The goal of the Paris negotiations is to craft a binding agreement that will rein in the runaway greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet.
Most scientists agree that keeping planetary warming within a safe range will require drastic emissions reductions from energy and other industries. And right now, the world is moving in the opposite direction: Global carbon dioxide emissions ticked up 2.3 percent in 2013, according to a Global Carbon Project report released Sunday, and emissions are expected to increase 2.5 percent this year.
To the chagrin of many in Congress, Obama began tackling climate mitigation independently after Senate efforts stalled amid partisan disagreement in 2010. Obama’s Climate Action Plan, unveiled last summer, leverages executive authority and cabinet-level initiatives to improve transportation efficiency, reduce coal-fired emissions, cut off US financing for coal projects abroad, and support wind and solar energy.
Republicans and energy-state Democrats have panned Obama’s actions – like his Clean Power Plan to curb coal emissions – as executive overreach that will harm the economy and destroy jobs. And Congress has shown little inclination to collaborate with Obama on climate; complicating, in turn, the president’s ability to commit to a binding international agreement on climate. The Senate would have to ratify any new treaty with a two-thirds majority.
But the administration may be willing to circumvent Congress to reach such an agreement. Obama climate negotiators are considering an international accord that would not would require a daunting, borderline-impossible two-thirds Senate majority to go into effect, as the New York Times reported last month.
“He’s identified climate change as one of the legacies of his administration,” says David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute.
Countries counting on US backing for a broad international accord understand Obama’s bind, according to Mr. Waskow.
“Other countries are quite aware of the constraints that the administration faces in terms of potential congressional action,” Waskow says in a telephone interview Monday. “There’s a recognition that Obama is moving forward largely using executive tools.”
Some lawmakers have already expressed disapproval at hints that Obama might move forward on international climate efforts without Congress.
“Unfortunately, this would be just another of many examples of the Obama administration’s tendency to abide by laws that it likes and to disregard laws it doesn't like – and to ignore the elected representatives of the people when they don’t agree,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said in response to the New York Times report.
In the meantime, don’t expect leaders – Obama included – to unveil drastic or multi-national climate commitments Tuesday. Substantial commitments will likely come as countries debut their post-2020 emissions reduction targets in early 2015.
“Our expectation is this is a political event,” Zou Ji, deputy director of China’s National Center for Climate Change Strategy, said of Tuesday’s summit in a call with reporters last week.
China President Xi Jinping is among a handful of leaders – including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who are not attending the New York summit. Their absence has fueled speculation that the first and third largest carbon emitters are more concerned about growing their quickly developing economies than they are about reining in greenhouse gases.
Other developing nations will be looking to balance between the need for cheap, plentiful energy and the risks of pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That could make for tough negotiations as a diverse spectrum of officials look toward Paris next year.
“Other foreign leaders recognize the importance of affordable, reliable energy to move their nations forward: to combat disease and poverty; provide potable water, suitable housing, and power appropriate healthcare facilities; and grow their economies,” Laura Sheehan, senior vice president for communications at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group, said in a statement Monday. “Their absence at the UN talks speaks volumes to the president’s misprioritized agenda and his complete disregard for the challenges of America’s working families and still-struggling economy.”
Still, pressure appears to be mounting for climate action at the grassroots level, which may bode well for Obama’s vision of the US's energy future. More than 300,000 activists, environmentalists, scientists, and others marched through the streets of New York City Sunday to ring the alarm on global warming.
“After over forty years in the trenches of the environmental movement, I've never been more inspired and awe-struck,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, in a statement Sunday. “The energy was electric and the turnout unprecedented.”