Kind of an unfortunate day for Obama’s climate change speech, not that it is his fault. I’ll distract my attention from my outrage at the overturning of a huge part of the civil rights movement for a moment to make a couple of notes.
First, Obama is absolutely correct to simply sidestep Congress here. In the long run, arguably the biggest impact of Congressional dysfunction could be that presidents regardless of party begin to ignore it and we move closer to unilateral rule. Of course, filibuster reform would help with this. Anyway, Obama still has significant power within the Executive Branch to shape policy and it is here he will leave his climate legacy.
Second, increasing carbon emissions standards on power plants is absolutely the best way to go about this, or at least it’s a very good first step. If it is a war on coal, then it is a war on coal. I know the UMWA and coal companies hate him for it, and what we really need is a clear program of green jobs in coal country to replace the jobs lost to environmental regulations, but sometimes you just have to make these hard decisions. Of course, the vast majority of coal jobs have already disappeared due to automation and industry disinvestment in Appalachia for new coal seams in Wyoming.
Third, Obama needs to take two steps he doesn’t want to take to show he is serious. First, he needs to not allow the Keystone XL Pipeline. If he lets that be built, it demonstrates that he is unwilling to do what it will actually take to slow climate change. Second, he needs to fight against coal exports to China. The Powder River Basin in Wyoming is now basically an enormous coal mine, mostly to serve an export market. West Coast cities are fighting against having their ports used for coal exports. Obama needs to step in here. I am skeptical on both counts.
Fourth, the plan really needs a more vigorous green jobs program and clean energy subsidies to replace dirty energy subsidies, but without funding from Congress, it’s hard to do too much here.
Fifth, none of this will probably make a molehill’s worth of difference in the ultimate battle against climate change. But a start is a start and you have to do something. Overall, it’s a positive speech, for whatever that’s worth.
As a sidenote, it’s also worth reading this essay by environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard on the need for historically black colleges to take climate change seriously. It’s an environmental justice issue. Unfortunately, even those affected don’t always see it that way because unlike a toxic waste dump in your backyard, you don’t notice it every day.
….Or as Pierce says, Obama’s bailing the ocean out with a thimble.