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Climate Action: Part 4 - Obama's Legacy

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It's never too early for a president to think about his legacy. Barack Obama has given hints he's already thinking about his. Last January, he told Diane Sawyer:

I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president...I don't want to look back on my time here and say to myself all I was interested in was nurturing my own popularity.

In his interview this month with Rolling Stone, Obama promises his legacy will include the beginnings of a clean energy economy:

One of my top priorities next year is to have an energy policy that begins to address all facets of our overreliance on fossil fuels. We may end up having to do it in chunks, as opposed to some sort of comprehensive omnibus legislation. But we're going to stay on this because it is good for our economy, it's good for our national security, and, ultimately, it's good for our environment...Am I satisfied with what we've gotten done? Absolutely not.

When people around the world look back on the Obama presidency 20 years from now, they will not think of health care reform, financial reform, immigration reform or economic stimulus. They will remember Barack Obama as the first African-American president, but while that's a tremendous milestone, it's not a legacy. Two decades from now, people will be experiencing much more intense climate disruption; they'll think about what Obama did, or didn't do, to prevent it.

Left unaddressed, climate change will undo many of the accomplishments on which Obama spent so much political capital during his first two years in office. The health care system will labor under the escalating costs of climate-related injuries and illnesses. Climate refugees will surge over our southern border in numbers that make today's immigration problem look minor. The world will be even more tense than today, as similar problems occur at much larger scale in other nations with less ability to cope. The recruitment of terrorists will be easier because of global instability. The United States will be regarded worldwide as an eco-criminal, a theme Osama bin Laden already is sounding.

The costs of trying to adapt to climate change and repair its damages will keep government budgets in unprecedented deficits. Once the flood waters reach their ankles, even libertarians will expect government to help.

That world will become President Obama's lasting legacy if he doesn't put his full weight behind bold and decisive climate action. Fair or not, the President is regarded as the most powerful leader in the world; in the judgment of popular history, the buck will stop with him.

History may also conclude that Obama was the last U.S. president with an opportunity to prevent runaway climate disruptions. Time is running out. The United States continues to be the key to an effective global response to climate change; with a stalemate in Congress that includes poor prospects for Senate ratification of a climate treaty, Obama is the key to the American government's response. His legacy probably will be determined next year, before he goes into reelection mode in 2012.

The President and his team already have put down a foundation of "chunks" over the last 22 months - more chunks, in fact, than the Administration is given credit for. Obama's 2011 budget request included significant increases in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs at the Departments of Energy, Agriculture and Interior. The Administration is raising vehicle efficiency standards to historic levels, among them the first national emissions and efficiency standards for heavy vehicles. It is reducing greenhouse gas emissions from America's largest energy consumer, the federal government. It is moving forward on greater renewable energy production on public lands. Having determined that climate change is a threat to public health and welfare, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is about to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from large polluters.

EPA is toughening its regulation of environmental impacts from fossil energy industries - for example, the impacts of mountain top removal coal mining in Appalachia. A presidential task force has been working for more than a year to frame a national strategy for climate adaptation. Another task force is working on national policy to protect our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes. The Fish and Wildlife Service has incorporated the effects of climate change on wildlife into its grants for protecting endangered species. The Department of Energy (DOE) has cleared its backlog of new appliance efficiency standards, an achievement expected to save consumers hundreds of billions of dollars over the next 30 years.

The Administration has created a strategic plan for high-speed rail in America. It championed more than $80 billion in green investments in the stimulus package, making it the largest energy bill in U.S. history. Obama has directed nine agencies to expedite construction of transmission lines on public lands to help distribute renewable energy. The Nature Conservancy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are trying to protect coral reefs from climate-related damage in the Caribbean, Florida, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.

Under Obama's watch, as I pointed out in Parts 2-3 of this post, corporate environmental practices are becoming more transparent. The Federal Trade Commission has issued new guidelines on truth in green labeling. The Securities and Exchange Commission has issued guidance on how publicly traded companies should report climate risks. EPA and the Department of Transportation are revising fuel-economy labels for cars and light trucks to show each new vehicle's carbon emissions profile. EPA now requires 10,000 of America's biggest carbon emitters to publicly report their emissions. Federal agencies have been directed to regularly report their progress on reducing emissions, too. The Administration is working on a requirement that climate impacts must be considered in environmental assessments of federally funded projects.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued an order to improve federal water policies to deal with climate change, population growth and other pressures on freshwater supplies. NOAA created a new office to improve climate change information for local governments, academia and industry. DOE has launched an effort to reduce energy consumption in U.S. buildings 25-30 percent by 2030. EPA and the Department of Agriculture are collaborating on a program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock operations. The U.S. Geological Survey has created a new method to assess the carbon sequestration potentials of geologic formations.

Recognizing how renewable energy technologies can increase its effectiveness as well as overall national security, the U.S. military is becoming the nation's clean energy groundbreaker. This month for the first time, the military equipped a field encampment - a company of Marines in Afghanistan - with fold-up solar panels, energy efficient lights, solar chargers for phones and computers, and solar tent shields that provide both shade and power for tents. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus wants 50 percent of the power used by the Navy and Marine Corps to come from renewable energy on bases, in vehicles and on ships within 10 years. Last year, the Navy introduced its first hybrid vessel, the U.S.S. Makin Island. On its first voyage, from Mississippi to San Diego, the ship used 900,000 gallons less fuel than a traditional vessel. The Air Force plans to have its entire fleet certified to operate on bio-fuels by next year.

Obama proposed phasing out $36 billion in subsidies and tax loopholes for fossil fuels. He proposed a $50 billion boost to infrastructure improvements, funded by ending some oil and gas tax breaks.

On the international front, the President won the G-20's approval of his proposal to cut international fossil energy subsidies by $300 billion annually. The Administration has negotiated agreements to collaborate on carbon sequestration and clean energy technologies with Canada, Mexico, China and India. It has joined an international partnership to reduce global emissions of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. And in Copenhagen last year, President Obama personally brokered a multi-national accord in which most nations have endorsed the objective of keeping atmospheric temperatures from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Copenhagen Accord is far short of an adequate international response to climate change, but it salvaged something out of the debacle in Denmark.

President Obama has been justifiably criticized for failing to exert his full force to move a climate bill through Congress, a goal that may be deferred for several years as a result of the November election. The goal Obama set for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions -- just 3 percent by 2020 compared to the 25-40 percent cuts the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says are needed from industrial economies -- is embarrassingly low for the nation that has put more carbon in the atmosphere than any other. Assuming they are not repealed, weakened or starved of resources by Congress, the "chunks" the Administration has implemented or announced so far will achieve 70 percent of Obama's 3 percent goal, according to the World Resources Institute. But that's still 70 percent of an inadequate aspiration.

Yet even with those critical exceptions, Obama and his team have made more progress on this issue in 22 months than all his predecessors managed since Lyndon Johnson was warned about climate change by his science advisors 45 years ago. And he's done it at the same time he's wrestled with his immediate predecessor's debilitating legacy of red ink, the Great Recession, Wall Street scandals, the housing crisis, the collapse of some of the nation's biggest companies, and two wars.

Many of us in the climate-action movement are still working through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grieving over the failure to get cap and trade from Congress. It appears that most of us are somewhere between anger and depression. But it's time to graduate to acceptance. Unless progressives score an amazing come-from-behind victory on Nov. 2, or unless something improbable happens in this fall's lame-duck session, we can't hope for much on Capitol Hill. The objective in Congress will be to defend the progress the Administration already has made and the powers it already has.

Fortunately, there are two other branches of federal government. Courts have been making more climate policy than Congress in recent years. The Executive Branch has many more tools for making chunks. If Obama cares about legacy, the third year of his presidency will be his chance to remove all questions about his Nobel Peace Prize and his place in history. He'll need to mobilize the prestige of his office, the full power of the Executive Branch, and the motivational talent he showed the American people during his campaign. Although skeptics and deniers are getting most attention in the media, a new report from the Yale Project on Climate Communication shows that 63 percent of Americans believe climate change is real. They are today's silent majority.

One of the problems with chunks is that they imply slow, transactional change instead of the economic and social transformation many of us hoped would be triggered by a cap-and-trade regime. As Sam Walton reportedly said, "Incrementalism is innovation's worst enemy. We don't want continuous improvement, we want radical change."

But chunks can result in tipping points and catalytic events. And while lawsuits, regulations and executive orders are not by themselves the game-changers we hoped for, many chunks are better than no chunks. The responsibility of the green movement now, I believe, is to make progress where progress can be made - and to be "shovel ready" when the opportunity for much bigger progress comes.

Obama surely recognizes the importance of this moment in history. He has spoken about it often. He has the opportunity and the personal gifts to become a truly great two-term president - the world leader who confronted the most difficult challenge the global community has ever faced.

Despite our polarized and paralyzed political environment, I still believe President Obama and his team can be the agents of a profound shift in government policy and American values. It would be an incredible legacy -- and far better than the alternative.

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