After years of relative stagnation by the federal government, President Barack Obama has spent the last several weeks rallying national lawmakers into action around the issue of climate change.
Obama devoted a significant portion of both his State of the Union address on Tuesday and his inaugural address last month calling for the country to take the initiative and become a global leader to combat the rising average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere. The president has pointed to increased forest fires, droughts and powerful storms, such as last year’s super storm Sandy, over the last decade as reasons for the national government to act now.
While Obama is urging lawmakers to consider legislation that would encourage the development of clean energy production, one WMU professor believes that creating new U.S. centric tax benefits won’t be enough to reduce carbon emissions.
“Obama is doing things, and they are important to reduce our own green house gas emissions,” said Paul Clements, a professor with the university’s department of political science. “But none of those steps are gonna get us to the levels we need to get in the long run, and we’re not going to be able to move where need in the long run without an international agreement.”
Clements said that the only way to effectively to address the issue of climate change for the leaders of the world’s top energy producers to collaborate and make a concerted effort to reduce harmful emissions. However, the U.S. has shied away from any formal commitments with other nations in regards to the issue.
“Although, as a country, we have the highest historical contribution for climate change, the United States still has not entered the international agreements about the steps that are needed to reduce climate change,” Clements said.
International organizations, such as the United Nations, have attempted to implement agreements aimed toward climate change in the past, with little to no success, Clements said. One notable example in recent history is the Kyoto Protocol, an international pact that establishes standards for greenhouse gas emissions.
“Kyoto was the first treaty, so it’s important as a first step,” Clements said. “However, it hasn’t been effective at significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
Although 191 different nations are following its guidelines, the U.S. is one of the few industrialized nations to have signed but not ratified the protocol. Then U.S. President Bill Clinton pushed for the nation to join when the accord was first drafted in 1997, but the Senate voted not to approve of the treaty’s terms due to concerns that emission restrictions would negatively impact the nation’s economy.
Without U.S. support, Clements said believes that Kyoto and any other international pacts are doomed to failure.
“The bottom line is, we can’t slow down global warming significantly without an international agreement,” Clements said. “And we cannot get an international agreement without U.S. leadership.”
Following Clinton’s failure with Kyoto, the White House made little progress to address climate change under President George W. Bush, Clements said. Although his father, George H.W. Bush, was the first president to formally engage the U.S. in international negotiations nearly 20 years earlier, the second Bush’s policy was to allow the energy market to regulate itself via voluntary emissions standards.
“When you put voluntary standards on something that costs money, then you don’t expect a whole lot of response to that,” Clements said.
Obama himself has supported a number of small, domestically focused initiatives, including establishing new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for the automotive industry. However, Obama still faces the same issue as the previous Democratic President when it comes to addressing climate change: a lack of support from most Republican lawmakers.
Southwest Michigan’s own Congressman, Fred Upton, is one such lawmaker who has opposed regulating carbon emissions, saying that such policies would cost the country jobs. As the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Upton is one of the most influential Congressman in regards to energy regulation, making him one of most decisive factors in the passage of any domestic laws aimed at climate change, Clements said.
Even in a Democratically controlled Senate, gaining the votes to ratify any treaties regarding climate change would likely be major challenge for Obama due to the threat of a Republican filibuster, the professor added.
Another obstacle that Obama faces is that presented from the American public. Though recent polls show over 60 percent of Americans believe that climate change is real phenomenon and should be addressed by federal lawmakers, previous poll numbers has shown that public support on the subject is quite fluid. Only a few years ago, less than 50 percent of Americans didn’t believe in climate change, but the erratic weather patterns of the last several years has swayed the majority the other way, Clements said.
Despite the obstacles ahead of him, followers of climate change policy see Obama’s public demands for action as a positive step forward toward finding a solution for the issue.
“It’s a very promising and exciting time when the President makes that kind of statement in his inaugural address, especially when when climate change was not in the conversation during presidential race at all,” said Harold Glasser, the head of the WMU Office for Sustainability. “Where that goes, I’m guardedly optimistic about.”
“I don’t want to minimize the political challenge that’s involved in doing what needs to be done, but Obama has taken a really important step,” added Professor Clements. “But in the general scheme of things, it’s one step on a long journey.”