First, Hurricane Sandy hit. Then, President Obama mentioned global warming in his acceptance speech. Now, 2012 looks likely to be the hottest year on record.
In the last three weeks, public interest in global warming has undergone a remarkable revival. Already, environmentalists are renewing calls on Obama to reject a controversial Canadian oil pipeline and to put strict greenhouse gas emission standards in place.
But energy and environmental analysts warn that idealistic calls to action may end up hurting climate change policy efforts: With Republicans controlling the House and Democrats the Senate, and the nation facing a hard economic path, they argue any gains need to be made through consensus from both sides of the aisle.
“Sandy has helped put climate change back on the map . . . but it’s not like the bulk of the American people now say that climate change matters more than anything else,’’ said Michael A. Levi, director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change for the Council on Foreign Relations, a bipartisan think tank. Levi recently wrote blog posts calling for environmentalists and oil and gas interests to compromise to get past the stalled climate status quo.
“If you can put together a package that expands opportunity for oil and gas development while curbing emissions from fossil fuels, that is something that moves us” forward, he said.
If the loud cheers Obama won from mentioning a warming planet in the wee hours after he was reelected are any indication, the president is likely to start talking about climate change more freely and frequently. He did just that Wednesday, in his first postelection press conference — but stopped short of vowing action.
“If the message is somehow, we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that,” he said. “I won’t go for that.”
One of Obama's first tests will be a wind energy tax credit that has long had bipartisan support but came under GOP scrutiny with presidential candidate Mitt Romney saying he opposed subsidies for green energy. The credit will expire at the end of the year if the congressional session that began this week does not extend the credits. The American Wind Energy Association, an industry group, says 37,000 jobs will be lost within a year if the tax break is not extended.
“We have a chance to do it. It’s popular across the aisle,’’ US Senator John Kerry said. “But the reality is, we can’t keep doing this successfully one year at a time. We need to provide predictability and certainty about what role the tax code will play in our energy policy. ”
Some analysts say one controversial project could join both sides of the aisle: presidential approval of the Keystone pipeline that would bring tar sands oil from Canada to the United States. Environmentalists opposed the pipeline for several reasons, which included the large amounts of carbon dioxide, the key heat-trapping gas, that are emitted through the energy-intensive methods for extracting oil from tar sands. Obama rejected an accelerated timetable for the project last year, but he will have to face a final decision on the pipeline this term.
A “positive decision can address environmental concerns and win support from both sides of the aisle in Congress,’’ said Robert Stavins, director of Harvard’s Environmental Economics program.
There already have been significant gains in Obama's first term, such as higher mileage requirements for automobiles and appliance energy efficiency standards, that will help lower emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency has enacted carbon dioxide rules for new power plants, but how the agency will handle regulating the gas from existing power plants is unclear. Other pollution rules the EPA could enact, while not having specific carbon dioxide requirements, could significantly affect investment, retirement, and use of coal-fired power plants, says Stavins. Also helping climate efforts, while not policy, is the low price of natural gas. Generating electricity from gas produces less carbon dioxide than from coal.
Those policies — and expanded use of natural gas — will help the United States achieve or come close to the emission reductions Obama pledged in international climate talks in 2009, 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, Stavins and other energy analysts predict.
Another subject ripe for compromise that is making headlines — although few expressed confidence it would advance — is a carbon tax. As Congress debates how to raise revenue to avoid massive spending cuts, the “fiscal cliff,” some economists and environmentalists are calling for a fee on carbon pollution. One research group, Resources for the Future, estimates that a tax of $25 per ton of carbon dioxide would raise $125 billion a year.
While any taxes are unpopular, there could be compromise embedded in such a tax, says Joseph Aldy, assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School who is affiliated with Resources for the Future. A carbon tax could help avoid less palatable alternatives such as eliminating mortgage interest deductions, but it also may mean Democrats would have to give up EPA's regulatory authority over greenhouse gases, he said.
“If a meaningful, economy-wide carbon tax can be established, then that reduces the need for greenhouse gas emission regulation,” Aldy said. “Both sides get an important component of a tax and fiscal reform package . . . the Republicans get regulatory streamlining, and the Democrats get a price on carbon.”
There is also speculation over whether Obama will make a push for stronger US climate policies, such as a national clean energy standard, requiring a certain percentage of power from renewable energy.
But some economists and academics say such changes may have a better shot if states continue to lead, although it will depend how well they do so. For example, the Northeast’s landmark Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which set a gradually lowering cap on power plant emissions with the intent of driving up the cost of carbon emissions for operators, has not sparked the investment in pollution reduction first envisioned. Emissions have been markedly lower than forecast because of the recession, and low natural gas prices and a cap that was set very high also made the program less effective. However, a cap and trade program that is beginning in California could have a significant national impact, analysts say.