Center for Strategic Communication

This article is Cross-Posted from Andrew Holland’s Power Policy blog on Energy Trends Insider

What Can Obama Do?

Secretary of State KerryThe President has begun his second term in office by saying that he will act on climate change, stating in his inaugural address: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

However, the question now becomes: what can President Obama do about climate change? He made action on climate change a central argument during his 2008 campaign and early in his first term, but failed in the effort to pass major emissions reduction legislation through Congress. While the stimulus had many important clean energy sections, it is unclear whether these will result in lasting changes in our economy.

Market-Based Actions Are Most Effective

Having tried and failed to pass major climate legislation through Congress in 2009 and 2010, and knowing that a polarized Congress is unlikely to address this again in the next few years, I believe that the Administration will move towards a two-pronged approach that uses regulation at home, but prioritizes action on climate as a tool of international relations.

With regard to the effectiveness of regulations, the World Resources Institute has a new study out saying that the U.S. could meet the emissions reduction goal of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, set at the Copenhagen summit in 2009, with regulatory action alone.

Probably the most important action on climate in the first term was the passage of the increase in fuel economy standards for cars – that will see Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards doubled by 2025 – effectively reducing future greenhouse gas emissions by millions of tons. In this term, a strengthening of EPA regulations on emissions from electricity generation along with other actions could build on this. However, we should remember that regulatory action on climate is definitely a second-best option: market-based methods for reducing emissions would be far more effective – but would require Congressional action.

Secretary of State Kerry to Engage on the International Level

While I am sure that the President will pursue action on domestic climate mitigation through regulatory action, the evidence shows that he will also pursue active international engagement on climate. The appointment of John Kerry as Secretary of State (disclaimer: Kerry was a founding member of ASP’s board — the foundation I work for — until he resigned last week to take this job) will raise the profile of climate change in America’s international engagement. As Senator (now Secretary) Kerry said during his confirmation hearing, climate change is a “life-threatening issue.”

Moreover, action on climate in the international sphere will fit the President’s temperament. In 2011, David Ignatius wrote a column in the Washington Post, “The Covert Commander in Chief,” that characterized the President as comfortable in the role of ‘spymaster’ but that he does not like the political bargaining part of the job. I think that this will play out in climate action. As Ignatius writes, “If only economic policy could be executed as coolly and cleanly as a Predator shot.” The same, and more, could be written about climate action.

At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, Obama proved that he was capable of achieving important American goals via direct negotiations with foreign leaders – most effectively with China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao. As the international community begins the process of negotiations that will lead to a successor to the Kyoto Protocol in Paris in 2015, this ability will be tested.

International action on climate can be effective in forging long-term agreement. Let us not forget, that throughout the second term of the Bush Administration, there was significant movement on climate in the international arena – as an administration that had not addressed climate at all was moved by leaders like Angela Merkel and Tony Blair to make a commitment along with other G8 nations to “aim to at least halve global CO2 emissions by 2050.” A succession of G8 and UNFCCC meetings from 2005 through 2008 set the stage for much of the international climate action since then.

Conclusion: Tough to Get Things Done in the World Arena

Unfortunately, however, if climate is a problem to be addressed by foreign policy, then the one it most closely resembles is the civil war in Syria: action is uncertain, and there are few new ideas. Like Syria, there is a threat that anything the U.S. does is likely to be undone by other major powers (Russia in Syria, China in climate). But, that ultimately points to the reason why concerted international action is necessary: only by acting together can an agreement be reached that is effective at reducing emissions.

If the President can forge a lasting international agreement to reduce emissions, that action will likely be more important than passage of legislation in the U.S. A commitment by all countries to reduce emissions would be more effective than one country acting alone.

We see this week that Vice President Biden spoke about the importance of climate action with President Hollande of France. However, whether other countries will sign-up to a new agreement if the world’s second-largest emitter does not bind its own emissions with domestic legislation will be the key tripping point. If President Obama can convince the world that America’s domestic emissions regulatory regime is strong enough to sign a meaningful climate treaty, then his legacy on climate action will be secure.