Now that US voters have returned Obama to office, will climate and energy concerns get their due? Here are three key environmental issues the president will have to confront in his second term.
The US election on 6 November was a resounding success for liberal politics. Voters approved marriage between gay couples in three states, legalised marijuana in two states, defeated several conservative legislators and, of course, re-elected President Barack Obama.
In his acceptance speech before a jubilant Chicago crowd in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Obama finally – finally! – confirmed that the pesky problem of climate change hasn’t fallen completely off his radar.
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“We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened up by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” he said to applause.
There’s no telling whether or when environmental issues will claim their place on the national agenda. In addition to its lingering economic problems, the US faces the immediate challenge of avoiding the edge of the so-called “fiscal cliff” the nation will face on 31 December, when a number of tax and budget cuts go into effect at the same time.
Here are three issues a second-term Obama administration will almost certainly confront.
The Keystone XL pipeline
There are strong indications that Obama will approve the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial extension of the pipeline connecting the oil sands of Canada to several US destinations.
If approved, the pipeline’s construction would create jobs and contribute to America’s energy independence. This perennial goal of US politicians could become a reality in the US by 2035, according to a report released this week by the International Energy Agency, thanks to the development of domestic oil and alternative energy sources.
At the same time, the volume of greenhouse gases expelled as a result of extracting and then burning the pipeline’s oil would, in the words of NASA scientist James Hansen, spell “game over for the planet.” Keystone’s opponents, who include Hansen and the longtime campaigner Bill McKibben, have indicated that they will not let this go without a fight.
Emission standards for power plants
In his first term, Obama secured the first US Environmental Protection Agency regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions at fossil fuel-fired power plants. The new rule applied only to new power plants, not those already built or permitted.
The challenge now is regulating carbon dioxide emissions at existing plants, the source of 40 percent of US carbon emissions. Given the amount of resistance such a plan is expected to face from the industry and their representatives, a second term is only conceivable time to attempt it.
The industry has balked at the changes, saying that the carbon capture technologies such proposals rely on have not yet been proven at the power plant level. In September, a group of Republicans sponsored a bill that would strip the EPA of any funding used for international efforts to fight climate change. If it chooses to take on this fight, the EPA will have no small task on its hands.
A tax on carbon
There is one solution backed by economists and environmentalists alike to control climate change and bring in desperately-needed new revenues: tax carbon emissions.
Several conservative economists, including Mitt Romney’s economic adviser, have backed proposals to offset income tax cuts with taxes on carbon emissions. According to one report by a non-partisan think tank and reported in the Washington Post, a tax of $0.25 per ton of carbon dioxide could raise $125 billion per year. In comparison, the proposed 2013 budget for the US Department of Education is $69.8 billion.
Obama’s first attempt at introducing a carbon tax, known colloquially as “cap and trade,” blew up in his face. A second-term president is in an entirely different political position a first-termer, however. By rebranding the carbon-pricing proposal as a budget reform measure, he may have some success convincing Republicans to include carbon pricing in tax reform.