Environmentalists got what they’ve been waiting for Monday, when President Obama reinvented himself as a committed liberal in his second inauguration speech. He referred to climate change by its proper name, rather than dancing a little rhetorical jig around it, and even summoned the Almighty. God, he said, “commanded” the planet to our care. He flatly rejected climate denial, and said the U.S. “must lead” the renewable energy revolution. After the speech, V.P. Joe Biden, hobnobbed with environmentalists and told them to “keep the faith.” He intends to get a whole lot done by 2016, he said.
Of course, a strong speech by the President isn’t likely to provoke a sudden change of heart in Congress, that ever-able obstructer of climate policy. In fact, it could drive their heels further into the ground. So what’s actually possible in Obama’s second term? A more detailed agenda is expected from the White House soon. In the meantime, we shall speculate:
Let the EPA lead: California Senator Barbara Boxer announced in December that she was forming a “climate change caucus” to push climate bills in the new Congress. But this week, she said that the best thing Congress could do is stay out of the administration’s way, according to Greenwire. Why? The EPA already has authority to mandate big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. In Obama’s first term, the agency put new rules in place to limit emissions from new power plants, and set new standards for what cars and trucks can spew out their tailpipes. The big elephant still in the room is existing power plants, which are responsible for the biggest chunk of U.S. carbon emissions. Earlier this year, EPA officials indicated they have no plan to regulate these beasts. The question now is whether they’ll change their tune in light of Obama’s renewed to resolve to cement a climate legacy. It’s something they’re actually supposed to do, per the terms of a settlement agreement. As Boxer said: “If they don’t do it, they’re going to be sued.”
Energy efficiency: Tightening up buildings so they bleed less energy is one of those unsexy changes that could have an measurable impact on our collective fossil fuel appetite. And it’s not super controversial. Obama has already demonstrated a willingness to stimulate efficiency upgrades via executive order, and further action on this front by the White House or EPA will likely be part of his new agenda.
Carbon tax: There was a lot of talk this fall that a carbon tax might succeed in Congress where cap-and-trade failed. It’s a market-driven approach to cutting emissions, and could generate badly needed revenue for the government. But it looks like all that talk was probably a lot of hype. The White House has bluntly indicated it won’t push a carbon tax, and as Grist.org's David Roberts blogged this fall: “Why won’t it happen? Because — and try to follow along here, because it’s pretty complicated, and this is coming to me from highly placed inside sources — Republicans run the House of Representatives and Republicans hate taxes.”
Speaking of Congress: Republicans still own the House, and still haven't indicated they have any interest in climate legislation of any kind. And since second-term presidents generally have less political capital to spend to get Congress to do things it doesn't want to, the real action in the next two years – and likely the next four – will continue to happen in the administrative arena. The top item on enviros’ agenda will be regulation of existing power plants. It’ll be a fight. As Tim Philips of Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy group bankrolled by the Koch Brothers, told The New York Times: “(Obama’s) address read like a liberal laundry list with global warming at the top. Americans have rejected environmental extremism in the past and they will again.”
Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor. She tweets @callycarswell.