When it comes to climate policy, I’m with country music singer Toby Keith: we need a little less talk and a lot more action.
So I didn’t listen to Obama’s big climate address yesterday because I already know that the president is a brilliant orator. I’m sure it was a great speech. Unfortunately, the speech didn’t say what many think it said. And it most definitely does not deserve the praise heaped upon it (here, here, here, here, and here among others) by what seems like practically every environmental group.
Sweeping rhetoric isn’t going to convince me the Obama administration is serious about tackling climate change. We need to see a coherent plan, and what we got instead was… sweeping rhetoric.
He said he’s going to allow EPA to do, slowly, what it’s been under Supreme Court order to do for years, and what he promised it would do in speech after speech in 2008. Then he said he’s going to build the Keystone XL Pipeline to move Canadian tar sands oil to market. And that’s it.
If you want proof that Obama’s announcements were mostly hot air, you need look no further than the stock market. For maybe the first time ever, I had something in common with coal company investors: we were wholly unfazed. Coal stocks had dipped a bit in anticipation of the president’s speech, but after it they were steady. In fact, most of the big coal mining firms actually saw nice price bumps in afternoon trading. [Update 6/25: Coal stocks are seeing some fall off today.]
Investors saw what I saw. That the centerpiece of his announcement was this: letting a regulatory agency use its authority—authority that was upheld by the courts, again, more than a year ago—to begin an elaborate rulemaking process that will set greenhouse gas standards for power plants that, even if they avoid delay from appeals and litigation, won’t be finalized until 2015 at the earliest. It’s hard to imagine the new rules implemented before the late-20-teens. (Over at Grist, David Roberts has excellent analysis of this.)
That’s an awfully long time before using executive branch authority to press down on coal-fired power—the single biggest contributor to US carbon emissions—especially at a time when the nation is veritably awash in cleaner and cheaper alternatives.
I’ll admit that the president does deserve a little credit for his decision to let the EPA regulate carbon from coal power. Candidate Obama seemed to support the idea, but once in office he found himself faced with intransigent congressional Republicans who vowed they would respond by gutting the Clean Air Act. So yesterday’s announcement was something of a political step forward, even though it doesn’t really count as a big policy win.