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Barack Obama is the first climate president

Posted on 2 November 2016 by John Abraham

My how far we’ve come in less than eight years. We have seen happen what those of us in the climate and energy fields knew could happen. The US has become a world leader on climate change, dramatically increased our production of clean and renewable fuels, reduced our emissions of greenhouse gases, signed major international agreements to continue progress into the future, and have done so without cost increases or power disruptions that the denial community proclaimed would occur.

As we in the United States get ready to elect a new president, it is helpful to think about the impact a president can have. Particularly since we transitioned from the worst climate president ever (Bush) to the best (Obama). I am going to detail what I think are Obama’s signature accomplishments.

In my mind, the most important part of President Obama’s legacy on climate is that he changed the conversation. He showed that not only should the US play a role in reducing emissions, but we can do just that. He showed that this problem isn’t too big to solve. In fact, most of the solutions are subtle enough that we don’t even notice them. He showed that we can change our future for the better.

With respect to specific actions, the Clean Power Plan is one of his biggest accomplishments. By working with the EPA, he created the first ever carbon pollution standards for the largest source of pollution – power plants. He did this in the midst of a do-nothing congress that fought him every step of the way.

Under his presidency, we made huge investments in clean energy, which are paying off already. Jump starts to the wind and solar industry have led to enormous cost decreases – dirty energy isn’t cheaper anymore. It is really astonishing – wind power has tripled and solar power has increased by 30 times since he took office. 

Under his presidency, we improved standards for fuel economy of our vehicles, which not only reduces pollution but also saves money. Furthermore, Obama set targets to reduce the federal government’s emissions by nearly 20% by 2025. He has worked to reduce other types of greenhouse gases such as methane and hydrofluorocarbons, not only within the US but through international agreements.

And those aren’t the only international efforts. Obama made a joint plan with China that is almost unbelievably ambitious. It will reduce our emissions by approximately 27% by 2025 and puts major limits on Chinese emissions as well. He also forged an agreement with India to help low-income countries transition to modern economies that are not as polluting as current developed nations.

There are many more items which would be too numerous to mention but I wanted to know how his presidency is viewed within Washington DC. I mean, among climate scientists, he is the president we’ve been waiting for, but what do legislators think? I asked representative Betty McCollum from Minnesota for her view. Ms. McCollum has a long history of focusing on the environment in general and climate change in particular – long before it was popular. She told me:

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. ...we transitioned from the worst climate president ever (Bush) to the best (Obama).

    It goes without saying that with the next president, we must not go in a big time yo-yo to the dark ages & the worst imaginable fool (whose name is forbidden in my household, so I won't even mention it here) worse than Bush, who would destroy in no time, everything Obama has done.

    As the election day nears and the absurdity of the fool having a real shot at the White House looms, I start to worry. Not really about the unusually low morale nor about total ignorance of reality by the fool:  Congress, even Republican, would not easilly allow the foolishness to take over US politics. But at stake are the very things we're talking about here: there would be no opposition within the Republican Congress to destry all climate legacy Obama left, e.g. starting from KXL veto overturned.

    But let's hope all my talk is just unnecessary scare and the next president Hillary Clinton will strive to at least match if not surpass Obama/s legacy.

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  2. c

    A little rain on the parade: I have trouble understanding how any carbon cessation strategy, other than a carbon tax (preferrably a revenue-neutral carbon fee & dividend, CFD as proposed by Citizen's Climate Lobby, CCL) is ever going to cut carbon emissions down to sustainable levels. So, I am perplexed why we are not unifying behind the simple logic of CFD, and make this the #1 focus. It may be hard to enact, but anything else, I feel, will ultimately be a waste of time. I believe the following data backs this up.

    This LINK link (last chart) indicates that US energy efficiency (by unit GDP) has gone up 58% since 1990. Therefore, you'd expect carbon emissions would have gone down by 58% during that same time. Not so; this next LINK link (1st timeline chart) indicates that US carbon emissions have stayed flat-lined since 1990; this means that US consumes 58% more stuff than they did in 1990. Why did these conservation measure do nothing to reduce carbon emissions? My simple brain says, because of the flywheel inertia effect of supply vs demand economics keeping the fossil fuel demand up. Maybe I'm over simplifying, but I think I'm more right than wrong.

    The following is what keeps ringing in my head: Anything but putting a price on carbon (which is a morally legitimate inclusion of their future external costs), no matter how "environmental" right these other efforts might seem, is a near-complete waste of time (other than for the message, and your own personal future adaptation to a carbon-free economy). You might have reduced your personal footprint, but all you really did was keep the cost of FF's down, and because of that somebody else or, more likely, some large-scale industry (which must operate on a least-cost, capitalistic basis to survive) will be more than glad to use the FF's that you so heroically tried to keep in the ground. In other words, you didn't accomplish a thing (other than broadcast a message and adapt only yourself to what will eventually be required). But, in terms of achieving real net change, you did nothing.

    Now a counter argument would say that since renewable energy cost is falling below FF energy, then this will drive conversion. Yes, but not really! 1) What is missing in this argument, is that, because of the lowered FF cost, the demand per capita will simply go up. We will just "add on" the renewable energy onto the FF energy we were using before. I think the above data proves this. And, further more, 2) Electricity, even renewable electricity, will still cost ~4x more than gas, and ~2x more than oil (energies used for their high-temperature, thermal combustion potential, for example, drying). To replace this with electricity (using other high-temperature energies, i.e. hydrogen electrolysis or bio-diesel for example) will therefore cost ~3-5x today's FF costs. This is a near-impermissible hump of economic survival proportions for many status-quo, business as usual industries (all driven by US & OUR us & our market demands). Simply getting renewable electricity slightly more competitive over FF electricity (as FF prices will simply drop along side with renewable prices) will not be near enough to promote re-tooling industries that require these high-concentrated energy demands. Ultimately, CFD is required to overcome the flywheel effect of supply vs demand economics. I believe nothing short of this will be effective. ... And, the industries that do not survive the new economics will simply wither away, as they should for the sake of future generations. 

    Is not this cessation logic predominantly true? Or, is it too polarizing to be the primary battle cry? Why are not other groups (350, Climate Parents, Interfaith, Catholic Covenant, etc) not promoting this logical strategy? ... Likely Answer: Maybe these activist group leaders understand all of this, and they know they are seen as political adversaries by those we need to get on board (in congress). So, they purposely do not toot the CFD horn, as they know that will give a foothole for pundits to poison the political will that CCL is fragilely trying to build. Yes, that makes good sense. ... Wisdom! ... However, I do think SkS itself could toot the CFD horn a bit louder. Case in point, I knew about the power of CFD back in 2009 when reading Hansen's Storms (he probably mentions CCL in that book, but it didn't sink-in then) but I didn't know that the CCL organization even existed until 6 years after of reading SkS posts. And, I only heard about them when local chapter did a call-out in a local newspaper. That lack of attention by SkS is not good, sorry!

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Post slightly edited per request of commenter.

    Please note that the use of all caps is akin to shouting and is prohibited by the SkS Comments Policy.

  3. sauerj @2:

    1)  Your analysis of supply and demand is incomplete.  Specifically, if the demand for fossil fuels were reduced by (for example) a mandatory requirement that 10% of standing energy requirements, increasing by 5% per annum, be supplied by carbon free sources (renewables plus nuclear), the initial result would be a drop in demand for fossil fuels, resulting in a price drop.  That price drop, while working to sustain demand, would also render more expensive sources of fossil fuels uneconomic.  Those sources of fossil fuels would close as a result, reducing the supply and therefore tending to increase the price.  Even low price sources would rallel increase in price with a sufficiently large drop in supply.  That is because reduced production would increase the relative proportion of fixed costs relative to total costs of production.  Consequently, parallel regulations for road and rail transport would quickly render nearly all current sources of fossil fuels uneconomic except at a high price to a small residual market.  Therefore it is not true that fee and divident schemes are the only effective measure to tackle global warming.

    2)  In particular, cap and trade schemes are economically almost identical to fee and dividend schemes, provided the return on the auction of permits be distributed in a like manner.  Cap and trade schemes, however, have the advantage of easy coordination across seperate national markets.  This can be achieved by setting equal per capita targets for all nations, and allowing trade of excess emissions permits from poorer to richer nations.

    3)  The CCL scheme, like most fee and dividend schemes, proposes an equal per capita fee.  While this is easilly justified on the good, libertarian grounds that the global atmosphere is a commons, and that therefore each individual has an equal right of access to the commons.  It follows that each individual has an equal right for compensation for any fee charged for exploitation of the commons.  I am cynical, however, about the political rights rhetoric about individual rights, regarding it as a mere subterfuge to disguise a pattern of legislating in favour of the interests of the wealthy.  Therefore I do not expect any scheme such as the CCL's with equal per capita dividends to ever recieve bipartisan support in either the US or Australia.  Schemes which return a small equal per capita dividend plus a bonus pro rata on tax returns is more likely to do so.  One that makes the bonus pro rata on pre tax income is even more likely to do so.  While I have objections to both those variants, the important thing is to get action on climate now - and focusing on the equal per capita dividend is unlikely to do so.

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  4. sauerj:

    Your criticism of SkS's lack of attention to the Citizens' Climate Lobby does not hold up well to scrutiny. Please enter the words, Citizens Climate Lobby into the SkS Search box and click Go. Also enter the words, Citizens' Climate Lobby into the box and click Go.

    BTW, the official name of the organization is Citizens' Climate Lobby, not Citizen's Climate Lobby.

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  5. sauerj: You are critical of SkS for not promoting the Carbon Fee & Dividend (CFD) advocated by the Citizens' Climate Lobby. Doing so would not be consistent with the stated purpose of SkS as set forth in the "About" section of this website. You can access the SkS purpose statement by  clicking on the "About Us" button located on the bottom of this webpage.   

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  6. Recommended supplemental reading:

    5-4-3-2-1: Counting Down Obama’s Legacy on Climate Resilience by Christina DeConcini & C Forbes Tompkins, World Resouces Instittue (WRI), Nov 2, 2016

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  7. Tom Curtis @3, I can't fault your logic and cap and trade makes a lot of sense in theory, however I have one reservation related to the politics. Firstly my understanding is cap and trade involves globally trading emissions permits and forestry credits, etc. You do realise that the integrity of those permits etc would be very suspect given the nature of many of the countries in this world and their institutions?

    If it all goes wrong by the time we work out what's really happened, global warming will be well beyond 2 degrees. Global cap and trade seems a bit idealistic. Other systems to reduce emissions just seem more transparent to me.

    By the way I was a fan of cap and trade when it was first proposed in my country, as it seems to push some responsibility back onto markets. It's just doubts have crept in and markets sometimes work in sub optimal ways.

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  8. Tom @3: Thanks for your feedback. 1) On mandatory %renewable requirements on energy consumed, I still worry that the ratio of btu per capita will simply go up in step w/ reductions in %FF/total consumed energy. We will consume energy with whatever money we have available; as prices drop, we will use more. Net effect: no reduction in carbon emissions, until higher prices drive industry & markets to lower cost solutions. 2) Cap & Trade is a viable solution (Shi-Ling Hsu rates it as #2 best option in Case for Carbon Tax), but he & Hansen's complaints seem logical, a) not as effective as free market cost, leakage likely, b) arbitrary carbon ceiling limits likely lower industry's cessation potential, c) middle-man economic burdens. 3) Agree that 100% fee & dividend may be hard to pass, and sadly the end result may instead be some sort of payroll tax offset (like mentioned on Dicaprio's recent BTF video). Yes, this would not have the broad reaching efficacy as the full CCL CFD proposal. But, what is missing is not getting congress to act, what is missing is political will from the public (but I would be naive to think that is an easy nut to break, but the growing Climate Solutions Causcas, with 20 & growing congress members, gives one hope).

    Lastly, it is likely that I believe in CFD so much because Hansen gave such a convincing argument for it (& its simple logic) in his Storms book, which was my first indepth introduction to AGW science.

    John @4&5: Thanks for your feedback. 1) Pre Mar-2016 (when I joined CCL), 18 hits came up for 'Citizens Climate Lobby', but only 6 of these 18 articles had any real mention of CCL (others were only CCL authors or the word 'Citizens' separately or no mention of CCL at all, not sure why they were hits). What I was thinking about was an article with CFD and CCL blaringly in the title. 2) But, alas, I admit, I was wrong! One of these 18 articles (HERE, dated 6-18-2013, by Dana) was all about CFD and CCL. A very good promotional article, with CFD and CCL blaringly in the title! Thanks SkS for promoting CCL at that time; I am sorely sorry that I missed the opportunity it gave me then. Although, at that time, there was no CCL chapter in my town. Now, there are chapters in almost every district. Maybe it would be good to occasionaly re-run this article as it is very good, and may help other people like me to connect the dots & get involved. 2) Dana's concluding paragraph was so apropos to my situation. Here is how I think many the average reader (like me) feels: Struggles for some way to help, some way to get involved. Extremely depressed because he/she has come to realize that everything he/she has ever done their whole life (30+ years, in my case, of engineering over $100 million of manufacturing expansions) was all based on wrong economics and therefore was all wrong! And, more so, realizes that he/she can't do any real good now because they are enslaved by the status quo, as their family's subsistence depends on abiding with the status quo. There really isn't much a person like this can do but lie to their colleagues thru-out the work day and feel, deep down, that all they are really doing is screwing the people of the future. 3) I am sure that the SkS vision includes empowering individuals like this to get involved in as effective ways as possible; after all, it all boils down to getting carbon emissions down, using any good means possible. Now, based on my readings, I had assumed that all would have agreed that CFD is king, and that everything else is less effective, hence my frustation why CFD and CCL isn't promoted more. (My error, as I see now that there was in fact one such good article). Maybe I'm not so right on CFD being king, but one thing is true, the CCL organization is extremely talented, organized and wise. And, it gives a person, like me, something (powerful I think) to finally work for, and that makes all the difference. Now my life is not a complete contradiction of my morals. For this reason of citizen empowerment, I would hope that SkS would repeatedly rally to promote CCL, and its effective vision of CFD, its depth of talent & passion, its deep organization and the grace of its spirit. There may be many a person, like me, still out there that may need a smack over the head, i.e. an article that connects the dots and says in blaring letters: 'Go Here to Help!'

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