Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

A few predictions about President Obama’s speech

As the entire blogosphere and greenscape is well aware, US President Obama is set to make a major speech on not just the environment but specifically on climate change and controlling the US’ emissions tomorrow at 1:35PM ET.

While there’s no shortage of talk about what Obama will say, e.g. Obama Will Announce Regulation Of CO2 From Existing Power Plants On Tuesday, and even some

My predictions:

  • The biggest, hottest button of them all, Keystone XL, won’t be answered or even directly addressed. This will lead to virtual reams of posturing and speculating about what Obama might do, must do, and can and can’t do regarding that decision. We might have to entice long-retired Kremlinologists to consult and help interpret what the color of the president’s tie and who is and isn’t in the audience implies for KXL.[1]
  • I lied. A carbon tax is an even bigger, hotter button than the pending KXL decision, but that’s not something Obama and his administration can do unilaterally. He can, however, talk about it and try to go all bully pulpit on Congress and shame them into imposing one. I think there’s very little chance of this happening, as it would be too easily spun into an attack on the president and his party. If he were to do it, by far the most likely format would be the approach James Hansen is pushing: A per-ton fee on carbon at the source coupled with a 100%, per capita refund of all money collected.
  • It’s widely expected that whatever is announced will impose emissions limits on both new and existing power plants. The former is big news, simply because it’s a new step in the right direction, and the latter is almost off-the-scale huge, subject to the caveat in the next bullet. The US is building very few new, carbon intensive power plants, so reining in the emissions from the existing infrastructure is virtually the whole ball game in the power sector.
  • Regarding those existing power plants, the devil is most certainly in the details. What are the limits? When do they start? How quickly will they reduce emissions? What loopholes and rosy scenario projections, practices Washington has long ago turned into high art, will be part of the package?
  • There will be a lot of talk about how taking these steps will give us great leverage with China and India in climate negotiations. This is wildly, pathetically delusional. Both of those countries will be every bit as adamant in their refusal to care about what the US says or does as the US has been about other countries’ actions for decades. Does anyone really think that China and India will say, “Hey! The US is trimming their power plant emissions, so we should cancel a bunch of those new coal-fired power plants we’re planning that will provide desperately needed electricity!”?
  • Obama is expected to talk about both adaptation and mitigation, although nearly all the attention will focused on the mitigation portion and power plants. In the short to mid-term, the adaptation could have a bigger impact on reducing human suffering than will mitigation. In the long run, we’ll almost certainly need a great deal of adaptation, mitigation, and geoengineering to avoid some truly horrible outcomes.
  • Oh, and lest I forget, the deniers and political poseurs will scream no matter what Obama announces. As will most of the green blogosphere, if, as expected, the new plan is aimed at meeting the current US pledge, which is a paltry reduction of 17% below our 2005 emissions level by 2020.

[1] In all honesty, I will be interested to see who is in the audience or even chosen to stand with the president during the speech. My guess is we won’t see any of the high profile people that I and readers of this blog would pick, like Mann, Hansen, McKibben, or Jimmy Carter. In fact, I think there’s a slightly better than even chance that there will be no one of any real significance to the environmental movement.

2 comments to A few predictions about President Obama’s speech

  • Sasparilla

    Excellent post Lou.

    I think about the best we can get out of this circus, and it wouldn’t be inconsequential, would be a change in momentum on climate change action at the federal level.

    We’ve been loosing and loosing badly (particularly the last 4-5 years) for decades in the U.S., to shift that over to winning, even on the negligible amounts the administration is talking about would change that – making it easier for future changes of consequence to occur down the line (of course a GOP president in the next election could tank all that – but we’re running against the odds anyways). We’ll see what his actual actions are, but if we shift over to actively reducing emissions (on climate change grounds) I’ll take that at this point…the alternative of business as usual seems a worse choice.