In his first post-election press conference, President Obama on Wednesday said more about climate change than he has in months, if not years. He offered an unusually expansive endorsement of the scientific consensus on global warming, acknowledged the importance of the issue and, after listing some of his first-term accomplishments, conceded that he has not yet done enough. Then he said that over the coming weeks and months he would sit down with “scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what more we can do to make short-term progress in reducing carbons” (Emphasis mine).
But the United States does not have a short-term emissions problem; it has a medium- and long-term emissions problem. The recent, unexpected boom in domestic natural gas production, which has spurred a move away from dirty coal burning, combined with measures such as Obama’s forthcoming vehicle fuel efficiency standards have put the country on a declining emissions path, for now. America can reasonably predict that it will about meet its international commitment to reducing the country’s greenhouse emissions by 17 percent of 2005 levels by 2020.
The real question is what happens after that. Industrialized countries are contemplating carbon reductions of four to five times that size by mid-century. That will be much harder to achieve. It will require much bigger policy, such as an economy-wide carbon tax or cap-and-trade program, and policymakers don’t have years to figure it out, since energy infrastructure can’t be (re)built overnight, and green technology research takes time.
Part of the reason America still lacks a comprehensive, long-term global warming strategy is that Obama put climate policy lower on his first-term priority list than health care and financial reform. Will the issue get the attention it requires in his second term? In the end, the president on Wednesday was not very encouraging. He had many more details and a far more urgent tone answering questions on budget and immigration reforms. About long-term climate policy, the best he could manage was this: “You can expect that you’ll hear more from me in the coming months and years about how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support.” That hardly signals an ambition in proportion to the size of the problem.