With a little over a month to go before his second inaugural, President Barack Obama already appears to be working on plans to address climate change in his second term by reducing emissions from carbon-based fuels and increasing the use of so-called "clean energy" sources.
Todd Stern, an envoy from the State Department, is representing the United States this week at a United Nations conference in Doha, Qatar, working on a global warming treaty. The goal of the conference is to reach an agreement that will reduce carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020.
While Obama is unlikely to get a bill aimed at reducing atmospheric carbon passed in Congress as long as Republicans control the House of Representatives, he may oversee significant changes without Congress.
First, Obama's tenure is benefiting from a new technology, known as fracking, which is bringing a greater supply of natural gas in the United States. Natural gas is a carbon-based fuel source, but it can be considered a "clean energy" source (the White House labels it such) because the carbon emissions from natural gas are a lot less than from coal or oil, the other two main sources of carbon-based fuels. Because of this, natural gas replacing coal or oil as a fuel source will lead to lower carbon emissions.
Second, the Environmental Protection Agency has authority under the Clean Air Act and a Supreme Court decision to regulate carbon emissions. With that authority, the EPA can pass further regulations on existing power plants. Additionally, the EPA can regulate other types of carbon-based fuel pollutants, such as mercury, or regulate the disposal of coal ash. These will increase the cost of energy from coal and oil and make other "clean energy" sources, such as natural gas, solar and wind, more cost effective by comparison.
And third, the Obama administration has and can continue to increase efficiency standards for appliances, which will reduce demand for energy.
Critics of these types of regulations argue that the costs will be passed on to consumers, which could slow the already lackluster recovery from the recession that began in 2008.
These policies would not be path-breaking. Rather, they would be a continuation of Obama policies from his first term.
"The interesting thing," Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University's Environmental Economics Program in Cambridge, Mass., told Bloomberg Businessweek, "is that for the past three UN climate conferences, the U.S. delegation has never talked about this. They haven't been interested in taking credit internationally for what's already in place. When I mention this to other parts of the world, people are shocked."
The reason, Stavins believes, that Obama has not talked about his efforts to reduce atmospheric carbon is that he did not want the appearance that he was trying to "take an end run around the Congress," because, "it would have been very bad for the president's reelection."