Perhaps the second great step the Obama Administration has made this year with respect to climate change–after the President’s June 25 iteration of his sketchy but essentially solid outline for a new climate plan–happened this past week. The House Subcommittee on Energy and Power (part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee) held the first Congressional inquiry into the Climate Action Plan: “The Obama Administration’s Climate Change Policies and Activities.” Its ostensible purpose: to gather facts and opinions from expert witnesses regarding federal spending on a public issue.
Representative Ed Whitfield (R, KY), chairman of the subcommittee, invited agency directors to report on how much money their departments had spent on climate change. Interestingly, he later answered the question himself, claiming that “more than $77 billion was spent between 2008 and 2013 across the government on climate activities.”
In fact, the opposition used the hearing not for its factfinding objective, but as a way to “examine [Obama’s] policy approach“–and not by referring to real policies and numbers, but by discrediting the administration’s initial response to the hearing.
Congressman Whitfield had invited representatives of 13 federal agencies with climate change responsibilities to appear at the meeting. The invitation ultimately provided the main strategy by which House climate change denialists turned attention away from subject at hand.
The strategy began the day before the hearing with Chairman Whitfield berating the government for sending “only” two witnesses. He initimated that the nonparticipation of others betrayed arrogance and opacity on the part of the administration. Conservative disapproval flared with more finger-pointing from powerful Congressman Joe Barton of Texas. Cries of federal nonresponsiveness and coverup dominated the media, so the discreditation was a pretty effective red flag. The hearing appeared to be a far cry from the expected systematic evaluation of policies and numbers.
Ranking Democrat Henry A. Waxman of California, a longtime student of practicalities of climate change, led off the meeting with a caution: “The climate clock is ticking and too much is at stake for more politics as usual.” It’s likely that most ordinary citizens would agree with him, extreme weather being what it is. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Gina McCarthyappeared as witnesses from the executive department.
McCarthy and Moniz each spent time describing the President’s Climate Action Plan to the subcommittee. “The plan has three key pillars,” said McCarthy, “cutting carbon pollution in America; preparing the country for the impacts of climate change; and leading international efforts to combat global climate change.” She also noted that “Many of the programs that [the EPA runs] are programs that Congress specifically directed us to run.” [Find details of the testimony in my 9/20 article “House subcommittee disses alleged federal absence at climate hearing.”]
Admittedly, not all the credit for achievements noted over the Obama administration’s history directly stems from government policy decisions. (For instance, it’s naive to credit the recent domestic energy boom to the “all of the above” strategy.) However, the agency administrators noted that the executive branch has scored impressively with a number of initiatives:
• Revolutionizing transportation fuel use and emissions with the auto industry,
• Cutting greenhouse gas emissions from federal government agencies by 15% since 2008,
• Targeting waste in use of everyday items such as microwave ovens, metal halide lamps, refrigeration, and electric motors (expected to cut energy bills by up to $28 billion and CO2 emissions, by over 350 million metric tons over 30 years),
• Actively using the Clean Air Act, through EPA, to save an estimated $1.7 trillion for consumers,
• Cutting America’s oil consumption and reducing greenhouse gas emissions,
• Spotlighting the urgent needs for water and forest management, and
• Implementing the National Drought Resilience Partnership.
The jury is still out about the long-term value of Obama’s allocation of $14 billion to loan guarantees and R&D investments for advanced fossil energy technologies (enhanced oil recovery, CO2 reinjection, and “clean coal”) and small modular nuclear plants.
Chronic Congressional constipation has repeatedly smothered or scuttled other valuable proposals. Congressman Waxman cut to the bone on the futility of this trend: “This Congress has rightly been called the ‘do-nothing Congress.’ But on climate, we’re doing worse than nothing. We are affirmatively obstructing progress.”
Despite historic American isolationism and recalcitrance on signing agreements like the Kyoto accords, Obama does deserve full or partial credit for spurring a number of international actions this year:
• A new bilateral agreement on hydroflourocarbon use with hitherto reluctant China,
• G20 unanimity on using the 1987 Montreal protocol to address the HFC problem globally,
• Limitation of new overseas coal plant financing, now also adopted by five Scandinavian nations, and
• Clean energy technology cooperation with key countries such as China, India, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia.
All these domestic and international moves are important achievements. The Washington Post described them as “an attempt to escape perpetual failure on climate change,” such as the nation’s long-term inability to agree with the rest of the world about the Kyoto accords.
But in aggregate, they may represent a baby step away from previous American omissions and demonstrate that “America’s leadership can galvanize international action,” as Secretary Moniz remarked. They hint that the administration’s will, as well as its language, has somewhat strengthened about facing climate issues.