Ahead of a daylong climate summit scheduled to take place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, a portrait of a conflicted Obama administration has emerged.
While President Barack Obama and his advisers have spoken more about climate change than any other administration and pushed for new limits on the amount of carbon dioxide that cars and power plants may emit, he has also presided over one of the biggest increases in oil and gas production in the United States in decades. And some environmentalists say the administration has set its goals too low, not putting enough effort into passing significant climate legislation.
Obama has said he hopes to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2050. But experts say that's not enough to prevent the most catastrophic effects of global warming, nor does it address the problem posed by other greenhouse gases such as methane.
And many of Obama's biggest climate successes have come from administrative executive action, not from the kind of substantive legislative efforts that were responsible for political wins like the Affordable Care Act, leaving them vulnerable to being rolled back.
If recent actions from the administration on methane leaks from fracking and on chemicals used in refrigeration are any clue, critics say they’re worried that the last two years of the presidency may be filled with more lofty rhetoric without much legislative change.
“He’s talked a lot about it, but his action on climate change has been just short of what really needs to happen,” said Alison Auciello, an organizer with environmental group Food and Water Watch. “He certainly can do more than what he’s doing.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a call with reporters on Thursday, Obama’s senior climate adviser, John Podesta, assured that Obama would go all in for action on climate change at the summit.
No treaties or other binding agreements are expected to be signed at this summit. It's being billed as a forum to talk about goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally ahead of a U.N. climate conference in Paris in 2015, where treaties and other agreements are more likely to be signed.
Still, Podesta said, “We are taking this summit seriously.”
But for environmentalists, the words offered little hope — particularly since Podesta also said that the president planned to use the summit as an opportunity to “showcase” actions the U.S. has taken.
Obama, however, has had some noteworthy climate successes.
In 2011 his administration announced new fuel efficiency standards that would force car manufacturers to make cars that average over 50 miles per gallon by 2025.
That was followed in 2013 by a directive from Obama to the Environmental Protection Agency to limit the amount of carbon dioxide new power plants may produce. The order will require all future power plants to get CO2 permits from the EPA and will effectively kill the building of any new coal-fired power plants. Added to those rule changes are a set of new regulations proposed by the EPA in June that seek to reduce the amount of carbon emitted by existing power plants by 30 percent.
But because the sweeping changes were made by executive action, before the rules become final, they’ll go through public comment periods and will likely be challenged in several courts by the energy industry.
“There are already lawsuits filed challenging it,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “If any of them succeed, that’s a major problem, because if the regulations are not yet finalized, the next president could readily halt them.”
And even if they finalized, executive actions are amendable or reversible by future administrations.
But, Gerrard said, a deadlocked Congress has meant the Obama administration has been relegated to using executive action as well as pursuing voluntary measures when it comes to environmental issues.
That tactic could be seen last week, when the administration announced that instead of attempting to pass a law to limit hydrofluorocarbons — highly polluting chemicals used in refrigeration and air conditioning — it instead convinced industry leaders to voluntarily phase out their use.
It’s the same maneuver the EPA is now using to curb methane emissions at hydraulic fracturing sites and the strategy Obama has used in talking about climate change action on an international level — signaling that the U.S. may not be ready to sign a significant climate change treaty anytime soon and will instead push for nonbinding accords at the U.N.
“When the House flipped in 2010, that rendered all climate legislation impossible,” said Gerrard. “Congress hasn’t even passed a major piece of environmental legislation since 1990. We’re stuck with the legislation of a previous generation.”
Still, environmentalists say Obama has squandered the opportunity to use his bully pulpit to come out more forcefully against environmentally controversial projects. He’s waffled on whether the Keystone XL pipeline will be approved and has allowed cheap coal leasing in Montana’s Powder River Basin.
Perhaps most galling to environmentalists, Obama has also offered a full-throated defense of the natural gas industry, saying that ramping up natural gas and oil production is necessary to support jobs in rural, struggling regions and helps make the U.S. less dependent on energy from abroad. His critics say that stance makes it hard for him to be a climate leader on the world stage.
“He’s recognized the imperative of addressing climate change but also presided over the biggest oil and gas boom in decades,” said Abigail Dillen, vice president for litigation for climate and energy at San Francisco–based advocacy group EarthJustice. “If he can come to grips with that disconnect, then that would strengthen his hand in these negotiations immeasurably.”
While Obama won't be signing any treaties at Tuesday's summit, environmentalists say it at least presents an opportunity for him to show the U.S. is willing to lead the rest of the world when it comes to climate. But some are worried this year will be a repeat of his 2009 Copenhagen climate conference performance. That year, several major carbon polluters like China and India indicated they were willing to reduce CO2 output if the U.S. led the way, but Obama opted for a nonbinding pact to address climate change without any clearly defined goals.
Tuesday will be a test of whether Obama has revamped his reserved climate strategy since then.
“We’re not asking Obama to reinvent the wheel,” said Sandra Steingraber, an environmental science professor at Ithaca College and an anti-fracking activist. “We’re just asking him to pay attention to people who’ve already come up with the solutions.”