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Climate Policy in the Age of Obama

Author: Toni Johnson
Updated: January 27, 2009


The global economic decline has tempered hopes of swift international action on climate change, yet many climate advocates do expect the Obama administration to help boost long-stalled international climate talks (PDF). The announcement of the president's energy and environment team (WSJ) in December 2008 reinforced this belief. Among those confirmed to serve in the new administration is Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel-winning physicist and advocate for alternative energy. Chu underscored his concern about climate change and the need for energy efficiency in Senate testimony on January 13. Yet some advocates are worried. "All is well on the climate front, it seems. Except that it's not," write Teryn Norris and Jesse Jenkins of the Breakthrough Institute, a progressive think tank. They warn that President Barack Obama could take the "politically expedient route of short-term green stimulus while ignoring serious climate policy." During the campaign, Obama pledged to use green technologies and renewable energy as a jobs engine, but he also has pledged to mandate a cap-and-trade program.

The president's stimulus plan has already come under attack from congressional Democrats (SFChron) and some environmental advocates for not going far enough to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Various experts argue that the stimulus package should include a large investment in green technologies and infrastructure, which could create new, possibly well-paying jobs (PDF), especially in the flagging U.S. manufacturing sector (LAT). An $825 billion House stimulus proposal, unveiled January 16, includes $54 billion to increase renewable energy production (NY Times), weatherize buildings, and improve the electricity transmission grid.

Crisis Guide: Climate ChangeAdvocates hope the stimulus package will be used for energy efficiency, which, as TIME magazine notes, is "often ignored in the hubbub over alternative fuels, the nuclear renaissance ... and the green-tech economy." Other experts say clean coal technology needs attention, given the likelihood that coal will remain a major domestic energy source. CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow David Victor says investment in technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from "dirty coal" is now getting the short shrift thanks to the financial crisis. Many environmentalists, meanwhile, remain unconvinced that coal can be clean since it also poses environmental problems outside of climate change.

Moving any climate change bill through Congress will be no easy task. Though the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill has reiterated support for such a measure, it faces opposition from Republicans as well as Democrats over economic concerns. Democratic lawmakers from some states (IHT) with major manufacturing sectors have cautioned against moving too quickly on climate change legislation. CFR Senior Fellow Michael J. Gerson writes that if "Obama plows ahead with an aggressive cap-and-trade system, Republican and Democratic opponents--focused exclusively on jobs--will find plenty of excuses for legislative inertia." House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi's comments in early January that a bill may not happen this year (Grist) added to speculation that the issue will be pushed down the agenda. Some experts argue that may be for the best, as a law this year might tie the president's hands in UN negotiations on climate change expected to culminate in December 2009. A CFR Independent Task Force report examines the international debate over climate change policy (PDF).

Lawmakers are concerned about crafting a policy that puts a price on carbon emissions without a major hit to industry competitiveness and consumers. Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, notes an emerging consensus among policy proposals in Congress, but cautions that "most of it has never been voted on" or even come close to passing. Richard D. Morgenstern, senior fellow at environmental think tank Resources for the Future, writes in The Hill that the Obama administration should begin working quickly "to develop reasonable compromises to meet legitimate concerns" lawmakers have. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) says Republicans could be persuaded to advocate a carbon tax (NYT) offset with reductions in income and payroll taxes. Lawrence Summers, one of Obama's top economic advisers, warned in 2007 that U.S. climate policy could face the same fate as health care reform in the 1990s. Because there was no agreement on how to address the complexities (PDF) and costs of health care, Summers said, "what everyone agreed needed to happen didn't happen."

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