Bloomberg endorses Obama over climate change. Does Obama deserve it?

November 1, 2012

For a day or two, global warming might actually become a big issue in the presidential race. On Thursday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg came out and endorsed President Obama's re-election bid, arguing that Hurricane Sandy had brought climate change to the forefront — and commending Obama's record on this front.


This week's Bloomberg Businessweek cover. Not so subtle.

"Our climate is changing," Bloomberg wrote. "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."

So why does Obama deserve a climate-centered endorsement? How much has the president actually done on the issue? And does he have plans to do more in a second term? Let's take a look:

1) What Obama has — and hasn't — done on climate change: Over the past four years, climate has largely taken a backseat to the economy, health care, and financial regulations. But the Obama administration has taken a few modest steps to curb carbon emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency has crafted carbon regulations for power plants, making it difficult to build new coal plants in the United States. The administration has tightened fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks, reaching 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. And the stimulus poured $90 billion into clean energy, which, for all its shortcomings, did boost U.S. solar and wind capacity significantly.

But Obama has also been fairly cautious on climate issues: The White House endorsed, but didn't push very hard for, a carbon cap-and-trade bill when it was struggling in the Senate in 2010. (See Ryan Lizza's post-mortem in the New Yorker.) And on the campaign trail, Obama rarely mentions the issue at all.

2) What Obama plans to do on climate if reelected: In a recent debate at MIT, campaign surrogate Joseph Aldy predicted that Obama was unlikely to put forward further legislative measures — like a clean-energy standard — so long as Republicans in Congress would reject them out of hand. Instead, Aldy predicted, an Obama second term would focus on using the EPA's authority to further reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from stationary sources such as power plants and refineries. 

All told, Obama's incremental steps and further EPA action — when combined with a boom in natural gas and state-level actions like those in California — could nudge U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions down by as much as 16 percent by 2020, according to a recent analysis by Resources for the Future. That's a fairly sizable step. But without a price on carbon, the analysts noted, the country is unlikely to see a major energy transformation in the long run.

3) What Romney plans to do: Very little. If Obama's climate aims are modest, Romney has ignored the issue almost entirely. In that MIT debate, Romney domestic policy adviser Oren Cass said that reducing carbon emissions should not be a focus of government policy. "With respect to a legislative agenda," Cass explained, "moving forward, climate change would not be at the top of it."

In some cases, Romney has actively opposed steps to curb emissions: He has criticized Obama's vehicle fuel-economy standards as "extreme" and has vowed to repeal the EPA's regulations on coal plants. The only climate-related action Romney has said he would take is providing a bit more government funding for basic energy research. In his endorsement, Bloomberg criticized Romney for abandoning his previous green positions.

4) Why Bloomberg picked Obama: Looking back at Obama's mixed climate record over the past four years, one thing his advisers have often said is that they'd prefer to do more on climate change but think the politics are impossible. "If [Obama] actually sees a goodwill gesture from the other side," Aldy said, "and if you can do so in a way that also tackles the challenge of climate change, I think he would consider that."

One way to read Bloomberg's endorsement is that he's trying to shift the politics of climate change in his own small way. By supporting a president who has taken half-steps over a challenger who wants to ignore the issue altogether, Bloomberg is trying to make big action more politically feasible — and make inaction unacceptable.

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Ezra Klein · November 1, 2012