06/25/2013 05:40 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

President Obama's Climate Action Plan

This afternoon, in a speech delivered at Georgetown University, President Obama laid out his executive plan to fight climate change. Together with gun violence prevention and immigration reform, his climate legislation will form the major cornerstone of Obama's second-term legacy.

President Obama reminded that "climate change is no longer a distant threat - we are already feeling its impacts across the country and the world. Last year was the warmest year ever in the contiguous United States ... The 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15 years. Asthma rates have doubled in the past 30 years. ... And increasing floods, heat waves, and droughts have put farmers out of business, which is already raising food prices dramatically."

"These changes come with far-reaching consequences and real economic costs," he continued, "Last year alone, there were 11 different weather and climate disaster events with estimated losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States. Taken together, these 11 events resulted in over $110 billion in estimated damages, which would make it the second-costliest year on record."

President Obama's Climate Action Plan aims 1) to reduce carbon emissions; 2) to prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change; and 3) to lead international efforts to fight climate change and prepare for its impacts.

Bill McKibben, 350.og co-founder said: "It's awfully good to see the president starting to move forward on climate action--after the hottest year in American history, it's appropriate that the White House would move to act."

Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S.

Environmentalists welcomed the call to rein in emissions from existing power plants by using laws already on the books, such as the Clean Air Act. They have been pushing the administration to establish emissions limits for new coal-fired power plants, which have not been finalized.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), electricity produced by existing power plants accounts for a third of US greenhouse gas emissions.

Coal power plants currently still generate most of our electricity, about 37 percent in 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Carbon dioxide makes up 84 percent of greenhouse gases. And coal power plants emit the highest levels of carbon dioxide, at 40 percent.

For these reasons, limits on carbon emissions for existing and new coal-fired power plants have been a key target of the campaigns of environmental groups and activists.

President Obama is directing the EPA to complete the standards, setting a deadline of September 2013 for new power plans and June 2014 for existing power plants.

Coal shares plunged on Monday ahead of Obama's speech, in a sign of anticipation.

President Obama also stated he would seek to cut carbon by improving energy efficiency of buildings - commercial, industrial and personal - 20 percent by 2020; and of federal buildings and appliances by 3 billion metric tons by 2030.

Additionally, President Obama aims to reduce carbon emissions by directing the Department of Interior to permit renewable energy production on publicly owned lands; by designating a hydroelectric plant for priority permitting; and by maintaining the military's commitment to renewable energy. The Obama administration aims to have the federal government draw on renewable energy for 20 percent of its electricity by 2020.

In his talk, he mentioned that the use of renewable energy has doubled under his administration. And he added that wind energy has increased by 75 percent - in Republican districts.

The plan also calls for preserving forests and reforestation to help mitigate climate change.

Preparing the U.S. for the Impacts of Climate Change

The Climate Action Plan outlined steps to be taken to help the U.S. prepare for the (already occurring) impacts of climate change. These effects include rising sea levels and coastal flooding; drought; wildfires; and floods.

The plan directs agencies to support local climate resilient investment. It calls for measures to be taken to ensure that hospitals are sustainable and resilient; that agricultural sustainability is maintained; that drought is managed; and that wildfires are reduced.

Leading International Efforts to Address Global Climate Change

Lastly, President Obama stated the U.S. would work to "lead the global efforts to fight it." The plan calls for "galvanizing international action to prepare for climate impacts and drive progress through the international negotiations."

Obama's solutions focus on reducing trade barriers for "global free trade in environmental goods and services." And the US Climate Action Plan will aim to increase multilateral and bilateral agreements with major emerging economies - in particular Brazil, China and India.

The Climate Action Plan also outlines work to be conducted through international negotiations, touting a commitment to hammering out an international agreement through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change by the end of 2015.

Specifically, the plan a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 based on 2005 levels.

While the amount sounds on par with the pledges of other countries, many offering 20 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, most countries use 1990 as the baseline year. Using 1990 as a baseline for the U.S.'s 17 percent pledge reduces it to 3-4 percent reduction.

Compare it with the 20-35 percent pledge offered by most other developed nations, targets that these countries are not only meeting but exceeding, and the U.S.'s offer is hardly a sign of leading the global fight against climate change.

As Bill Snape, Center for Biological Diversity, Senior Counsel, said: "The pollution control measures announced by the president today are aimed at fulfilling his administration's pledge to put the United States on the path to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. But such a reduction falls far short of what the U.S. pledged in the Kyoto Protocol and would not be enough to avert catastrophic temperature rises, according to climate scientists."

Snape continued, "What he's proposing isn't big enough, and doesn't move fast enough, to match the terrifying magnitude of the climate crisis."

In a briefing on Monday, White House spokesperson Jay Carney stated that the president's plans sought to redress Congress' inability to pass climate legislation. In 2010, the Senate failed to pass climate legislation.

Phil Radford, Greenpeace US, Executive Director said: "The current Congress has made it clear that it will be on the wrong side of history, so it is absolutely vital for the President to use his authority to reduce power plant pollution, move forward with renewable energy projects on public lands, and increase energy efficiency."

While the Keystone pipeline was not mentioned in the Climate Action Plan, President Obama did refer to it in his talk, stating that it was not mentioned because the decision about it lies with the State Department. If it is passed, it has to have proven benefits for the U.S., he said.

The power plant regulations would need to pass the EPA and Gina McCarthy's nomination remains held up in the Senate by Republican opposition.

It remains to be seen what action results from President Obama's Climate Action Plan.

Environmental organizations and activists will keep the pressure on to ensure change. And, given that the effects of climate change are already upon us and international negotiations and domestic legislation remain gridlocked, many states, cities and communities have starting taken action on their own.