His goal at the time? An ambitious plan to cut America’s greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 and invest $150 billion in new clean-energy and efficiency technologies over the next decade. It was a pledge to upend the existing energy system and put the world on a path toward avoiding severe climate change — all in one gigantic push.
It didn't work out that way. Obama has made only scattered progress in the years since, to the chagrin of many of his green supporters. A sweeping cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate. Global climate talks have sputtered. And U.S. emissions have started rising again this year, after a temporary respite caused by the recession and dirt-cheap shale-gas prices.
So now Obama is taking another crack at the climate issue, starting with a big speech at Georgetown on Tuesday. In a 21-page document, the White House laid out a barrage of piecemeal energy and climate policies that it will pursue on its own in the years ahead, like new limits on carbon dioxide from existing power plants, or speeding up the development of wind and solar power on public lands.
There's no longer a grand strategy to solve climate change once and for all. And it's unlikely that Obama will attain any of the sweeping goals he laid out in 2008 — that would require cooperation from Congress. Instead, the White House will try to use whatever executive power it has to chip away at the problem, little by little, in the years ahead.
The climate problem at hand
If you take a look around the world, averting climate change looks like a daunting task. Global emissions soared to record levels last year. The World Bank is warning that the Earth is on pace to heat up more than 2°C by century's end, and possibly as much as 4°C (7.2°F) if the worst-case scenarios pan out — a level, it says, that humanity might be unable to adapt to. And international climate talks are barely limping along.
For now, then, the minimum that the United States can do is try to meet the near-term climate goals that Obama promised as part of the Copenhagen Accord a few years back. That would require reducing U.S. emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Right now, the country isn't on pace to do that:
Since 2005, U.S. energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions have fallen about 11.8 percent,* thanks to the recession, improved energy-efficiency, and a shift from coal to natural gas. But those trends have bottomed out recently, and coal started making a comeback in 2013. The White House has argued that new "policy steps" will be necessary to get back on track.
Four years ago, the White House was hoping that Congress would write a big climate bill to enforce these emissions cuts. That policy, known as "cap-and-trade," would have set an economy-wide ceiling on U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions and allowed businesses to trade pollution permits with each other in order to stay under the ceiling. But the climate bill died in the Senate in the summer of 2010.
"The last twenty years have not been very well spent," says David Hawkins, who directs the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We have to change the pace of action, and we're hoping that this [new White House plan] marks the start of accelerated serious attention to this issue."
Cutting emissions, the EPA way
That's why the Obama administration is now turning toward the Environmental Protection Agency for help. Thanks to a 2007 Supreme Court decision, the EPA is required under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide if it poses a threat to public health and welfare. (Which, most scientists agree, it does.)
So far, the EPA has used that authority to propose carbon standards for future coal- and gas-fired plants that have yet to be built. Yet green groups have long urged the agency to turn its attention to existing power plants, which are responsible for 40 percent of the nation’s carbon-dioxide output.
That's exactly what Obama will announce on Tuesday. The White House is asking the EPA to propose rules for those existing plants by the summer of 2014 and finish them by 2015. "It's an aggressive timeline and everyone will have a strong opinion about it," says a senior administration official. "And we're focused on making sure there's adequate time to engage key stakeholders here."
The details of these rules will matter a great deal — and the agency has some leeway on how strict they'll be. One group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, has outlined a proposal for deep cuts. The EPA would set different overall emissions goals for each state, and power companies would have to figure out how to meet them through a combination of efficiency, less coal use or renewable power. NRDC estimates that the United States could cut carbon emissions an additional 10 percent by 2020 this way.
But it's not clear how strict the agency will actually go with its power-plant rule. Many utilities are likely to oppose an aggressive proposal, which NRDC expects to cost some $4 billion per year. And plenty of coal-state governors oppose the new rules, worrying that they could hike electric bills for consumers. What’s more, using the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide could prove legally dicey, especially if the EPA pursues sharp cuts.
"Pretty much everything the EPA could do on carbon would be under parts of the Clean Air Act that haven't really been tested," says Nathan Richardson, an attorney at Resources for the Future. He notes that the safest approach, legally, would be for the EPA to require coal plants to adopt the most efficient technologies available and let states hash out the details. But that could also have a smaller effect on emissions.
These wonky details could determine whether or not the United States can actually hit its short-term climate targets. A recent report from the World Resources Institute suggested that the United States would only be able to cut emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 if it issued very strong standards for existing power plants.
The White House isn't positive that it can reach that 17 percent mark — but it thinks it can come close. "We can’t prejudge where EPA regulations are going to land," says the senior administration official. "But through a variety of these tools we think we can come within striking distance of 17 percent."
Here comes the kitchen sink
The WRI report also said that power plant regulations weren't, on their own, sufficient to hit the U.S. climate goals. That explains why the White House is pursuing a slew of complementary measures, too.
For instance: The White House is hammering out an agreement with China and other countries to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a potent greenhouse gas used in everything from soda machines to many car air conditioners. The administration will also develop a plan for curbing methane emissions from natural-gas production. The Energy Department will set new efficiency standards for appliances and buildings. The Interior Department will try to speed up wind and solar development on public lands. Foreign-aid agencies will cease financing coal plants overseas (except when there are no possible alternatives).
Pile that on top of all the climate steps the administration has already taken — like the fact that fuel-economy standards have been ratcheted up to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 — and the short-term climate target starts to look more attainable.
Emissions aren't the sole focus, either: The White House also plans to help state and local agencies prepare for the impacts of climate change that are lurking in the near future, such as sea-level rise or flooding or extreme weather. An example: All federally-funded rebuilding after superstorm Sandy now has to take the risks of future flooding into account.
All of these steps can, in theory, be pursued without Congress. Yet Obama could still encounter plenty of resistance from lawmakers, who can threaten to pull funding from the EPA and other agencies if they go too far. Last week, House Speaker John Boehner called Obama's rumored plans "absolutely crazy."
"Why," asked Boehner, "would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill more American jobs at a time when the American people are still asking the question, where are the jobs?”
What happens after 2020?
Meanwhile, the cuts that the Obama administration can make in the next seven years are just a small part of the climate story. Many developed nations have aimed to cut their emissions a whopping 80 percent by 2050, in the hopes of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 2°C.
A recent open letter from the Clean Air Task Force warned that cuts of that magnitude will require more than just reining in coal plants. Clean-energy technology will have to get a lot better, too. “Ultimately,” the letter notes, “we will need to capture the carbon from gas-fired power plants as well. Renewable energy faces challenges of scale, cost and intermittency; carbon capture and storage faces cost challenges at full scale; and current forms of nuclear power are challenged by safety, waste management, weapons proliferation and cost risks.”
Only Congress will be able to craft legislation that can reorient the nation's energy system that drastically. And the White House has said it would be open to more sweeping action to tackle global warming if lawmakers wanted to join in. Obama has, for instance, proposed a clean energy standard that would require utilities to get a greater portion of their electricity from renewables. Joseph Aldy, a former White House adviser, has hinted that Obama would be open to a carbon tax if Republicans were willing to negotiate.
At the same time, the White House will need to revive international climate talks with countries like China and India, which have been flagging of late. After all, it's impossible to solve climate change unless two of the world's fastest-growing emitters sign on. The White House thinks that hitting that 17 percent target by 2020 will help push global talks forward — and they're optimistic about further progress, citing the big recent breakthrough with China to curtail hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a potent greenhouse-gas.
"Nobody has a crystal ball," says the senior administration official. "But for a long time you had China with a very different position on HFCs, and as a result of focused work [by the administration's negotiators], we got them to a different place."
It's a plan that requires a lot of moving parts to snap into place. But at the moment, it's the only plan the White House has.
* Correction: U.S. energy-related carbon-dioxide are now 11.8 percent below their 2005 level, not 7 percent as stated. The EIA expects them to be at 7 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.