Climate Change Back on Political Radar after Sandy, Election

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In his re-election victory speech, President Barack Obama finally touched on a seldom-mentioned issue of the campaign—climate change: “We want our children to live in an America … that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Whether or not Hurricane Sandy can be  attributed to climate change, the storm’s devastating flooding brought the issue to the forefront of the country’s consciousness. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made the issue the centerpiece of his endorsement of Obama last week: “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be—given this week’s devastation—should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

A number of environmental groups have expressed hope Obama will finally be at liberty to take steps to address the issue. “I do think there’s an opportunity, if the president chooses to take it, to show leadership and get attention on the cost that climate change is likely to cause,” said Kevin Kennedy of the U.S. Climate Initiative of the World Resources Institute. The Hill dubbed the issue of climate change one of the winners of the election, along with tax credits for wind energy.

But the future of U.S. climate policy is far from certain. With comprehensive climate legislation dead in Congress, many see the path forward in continued regulation of carbon emissions from power plants. Sen. Harry Reid said he hopes the Senate, where the Democrats have expanded their majority, can address climate change, but he didn’t offer any specifics. Nat Keohane of the Environmental Defense Fund says the President should simply begin talking about the issue—“not just once in a while but routinely, as a fact of life rather than a special-interest issue.”

What Does Obama’s Win Mean for Energy?

The Scientific American foresees executive orders similar to Obama’s previous term, which raised vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and increased efforts to regulate air pollution from coal-fired power plants. Others, meanwhile, see harsher regulations for energy companies during a second Obama administration—specifically for the natural gas and coal industries.

While hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas brings with it plenty of air pollution and potential water contamination concerns, its use is likely to soar. Even so, regulations of this practice may tighten. Federal officials have already indicated they may increase oversight in some areas, such as developing national standards for wastewater disposal.

Some speculate Obama’s first big test during his second term will be approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. In a recent interview with Audubon Magazine, the president discusses a number of environmental issues—including the controversial pipeline. “There are a number of sensitive issues involved in the consideration of the Keystone pipeline, demanding a fair and full assessment,” Obama writes. “My administration is conducting a thorough assessment that takes into consideration issues of public health and safety, environmental health, along with American energy security and economic factors. I am committed to reducing our reliance on foreign oil in a way that benefits American workers and businesses without risking the health and safety of the American people and the environment.”

States Taking up Climate Change Action

Despite a new study saying it’s too late for two degrees—and suggesting a more urgent need for a climate policy at the national and international levels—states are starting to take steps to reduce harmful emissions.

In fact, state clean-energy funds supported 18 percent more projects in over 20 states in 2011 compared to 2010. Next week, California will be the first to combat greenhouse gas emission by requiring utilities to cut their output or buy permits for the emissions they emit beyond the capped amount. On Nov. 14, the state will hold the nation’s largest-ever auction for these permits.

The Washington Post reports while states are the laboratories for progress, their experimentation has slowed and is more heavily focused on renewable energy. “We still see all the states doing things on clean energy,” said Judi Greenwald of C2ES. “But definitely fewer states are calling what they do ‘climate.’”

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.