I’ve often said the most important thing to know about President Obama, who has a reputation as a words guy, is that he’s really a deeds guy. And I’ve mocked environmentalists who obsessed over Obama’s paltry climate change rhetoric, while ignoring his remarkable climate change actions.
Especially one particular environmentalist who’s terrific at climate words, but didn’t produce much in the way of climate deeds when he held a rather prominent position in the Clinton-Gore administration.
Well, points for consistency, I guess. Obama delivered a stirring speech about climate on Wednesday, and environmentalists who had criticized his “climate silence” seemed thrilled. Including his most prominent environmental critic, who called it “the best by any president ever.” To join in that spirit of consistency, let me say that this speech doesn’t matter any more than his lack of speeches mattered. What matters is action.
That’s good, because Obama has probably done more than anyone in the history of the planet to reduce carbon emissions. He doubled fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which by 2025 should erase an entire year worth of U.S. emissions. He enacted a series of new efficiency standards for dishwashers, refrigerators and other appliances, which by 2030 should save enough electricity to power every American single-family home for two years. He approved 45 renewable electricity projects on federal land, producing 10 gigawatts of clean power; his predecessors approved a grand total of zero. And his 2009 stimulus bill launched a clean energy revolution, with $90 billion worth of unprecedented investments in wind, solar and geothermal power; advanced biofuels; electric vehicles; a smarter grid; cleaner coal; efficiency in every imaginable form; high-concept research into low-emissions technologies; green manufacturing; and much more.
The president’s speech at Georgetown mostly suggest that he intends to do more of the same. More efficiency standards. More advanced biofuels. Another 10 gigawatts worth of renewable projects on public land. More electric vehicles. In Obama’s first term, federal agencies reduced their emissions by 15 percent, the equivalent of taking 1.5 million cars off the road; in his second term he wants the federal government using more renewables and financing more efficiency projects.
There were two newsworthy announcements in the speech, one perfectly predictable, one a bit ambiguous. The president formally ordered the EPA to draft rules restricting carbon emissions at new and existing power plants. The agency had already categorized carbon as a pollutant, and was already working on regulations for new plants, so this isn’t a surprise. But it’s still a big deal. Dirty coal plants still produce 30 percent of our emissions, even though many of them are closing now that natural gas, wind, and solar are getting cheap. A lot more of them will close once they’re not allowed to be dirty.
Obama also said he wouldn’t approve the Keystone XL pipeline if it would “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” which obviously depends on the meaning of “significantly.” The White House had leaked before the speech that he’d promise to reject Keystone if it increased emissions at all, which would have doomed the pipeline. I’ve said that if Obama approves Keystone, he’ll deserve all the grief he gets from climate activists, despite all he’s done in the past.
But I don’t think his words mean much on this. We’ll see what he does.
Nothing Obama proposed on Wednesday—not even the carbon regulations—would be commensurate with the scope of the problem. As he said, the twelve hottest years on record were all in the last fifteen years; he also pointed out that my hometown of Miami Beach is spending millions to hold back rising seas. We still need a price on carbon. We still need international treaties to slash emissions. We still need to help clean new technologies compete with incumbent fossil fuels.
But Congress isn’t going to do any of that as long as Republicans control the House and can block legislation in the Senate. The Kyoto treaty didn’t get a single vote on Capitol Hill, even though a climate activist was vice president at the time. So people who care about the climate should be happy that the guy currently occupying the Oval Office has been a deeds guy, cutting emissions on his own. There’s no reason to think that will change over the next few years, whether he talks about it or not.