He warned them… In his February 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama said: “ I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change…. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will”.
Speaking today at Georgetown University, Obama has outlined just what he meant by that, with a cataloguing of climate and energy initiatives, both old and new. The centrepiece of the “President’s Climate Action Plan” is the commitment to have the Environmental Protection Agency issue new emission standards and regulations for power plants. These standards will likely closely resemble Canada’s own standards for coal-based electricity generation, which requires that any new coal plant emit greenhouse gases at a level equivalent or better to that of a natural gas power plant. The proposed American standards, importantly, are more ambitious in that they cover new and existing power plants and are not limited to coal.
Other initiatives target renewable energy (a doubling of US generating capacity by 2020), clean energy innovation (through the extension of federal loan guarantees and subsidies), and energy efficiency. There is also – of direct relevance in the aftermath of the Alberta floods – a focus on adapting to climate change and building resilience at the community level. And finally, a commitment to American leadership in the global effort to address climate change. In short, this plan is, as the Washington Post has dubbed it, the “kitchen sink” strategy.
Stepping back from the specifics of the plan, though, we should see it for what it really is: a reflection of the massive institutional failure of governments around the world (with some important exceptions) to address climate change with anything but this kind of incremental approach. That is not to say that the plan will not deliver real emission reductions, or that it does not have some serious proposals (especially the power plant regulations).
But it is, at its core, a triumph of the second best. As Obama made clear in his State of the Union address – the essence of the Plan is a poor substitute for a market-based policy that would put a price on carbon. Standards and regulations will get tied up for years in court, and subsidy and loan programs will serve up their share of high profile failures (such as Solyndra) that will get folded into the scorched earth partisan posturing that characterizes this issue. At the same time, those policies will end up costing the American economy more than they have to, and not create the kind of structural incentive to innovation that a price signal would.
Most significantly, though, is the question of whether these policies will actually transform the American economy in ways that will lead to the kind of long-term transformation the climate requires. Being incremental is not enough.
Obama means well, and has delivered a plan that reflects – in the current political reality he faces – the art of possible. But let’s not confuse the possible with the necessary.