Obama brings America 'out of the climate closet'

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President Barack Obama wipes perspiration from his face as he speaks about climate change at Georgetown University in Washington on June 25. -Photo: AP/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama, in a much-anticipated speech at Georgetown University on June 25, offered his plan to attack pollution while preparing for the realities of global warming.

The president was firm in his declaration that the debate over climate change and its causes is obsolete and now is the time to act. “We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society,” he said.

The president delivered the speech in mid-afternoon sunshine, pausing to wipe sweat from his brow. His remarks contained a mix of policy and politics, including a declaration that he’ll work with anyone – Democrats, Republicans and Independents – to move forward. Those in Congress who characterize the greening of America as a job-killer and an economic destroyer are wrong, the president said.

Specifically, the plan calls for new rules for cutting carbon pollution in America, including:

• Directing the U.S. Environmental protection Agency to write the first-ever regulations limiting carbon emissions from power plants – a move described by many as spelling the end of coal-fueled power in the nation.

• Making up to $8 billion in loan guarantee authority available for advanced fossil energy and efficiency projects.

• Directing the Interior Department to permit renewable projects – such as wind and solar – on public lands by 2020 to power more than 6 million homes.

• Setting a goal to generate 100 megawatts of renewable power on federally assisted housing by 2020.

• Expanding the Better Building Challenge, focusing on helping commercial, industrial and multi-family buildings cut waste and become at least 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020.

• Reducing carbon pollution by at least 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030 through efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings.

• Developing fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles.

The plan also contains proposals to prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change, including:

• Directing agencies to support local climate-resilient investment by removing barriers or counterproductive policies and modernizing programs.

• Piloting strategies in the Hurricane Sandy-affected region to strengthen communities against extreme weather.

• Creating sustainable and resilient hospitals in the face of climate change.

• Maintaining agricultural productivity by delivering tailored, science-based knowledge to farmers, ranchers and landowners and helping communities prepare for drought and wildfire.

Varied responses

Responses to the president’s plan from environmentalists varied – “it’s huge,” “it’s about time” and “it’s too little, too late.”

Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s best-known environmental groups, said, “This is the change we have been waiting for on climate.”

He also said, “The Sierra Club’s 2.1 million members and supporters issued a collective cheer as they heard the president declare that the most effective defense against climate disruption will be by tackling the biggest single source of carbon pollution: coal plants.”

At the National Audubon Society, president and CEO David Yarnold said the president’s speech offered a way to progress: “If we take advantage of this moment, it’s a chance for America to come out of the climate closet and to lead – the way America is supposed to do. Whether you’re talking about birds, wildlife or people, this is the most significant threat we all face, and addressing it is the most important thing we can do.”

And the National Resources Defense Council said it was “huge news” that Obama plans executive action to cut carbon pollution from power plants.

But Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, called the plan “a day late and a dollar short” because it lacks “massive investments, tough and specific standards and binding rules.”

Center for Biological Diversity senior counsel Bill Snape said, “We’re happy to see the president finally addressing climate change, but the plain truth is that what he’s proposing isn’t big enough, and doesn’t move fast enough, to match the terrifying magnitude of the climate crisis.”

The organization said the pollution-control measures announced by the president would fulfill his administration’s pledge to put the United States on the path to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. But such a reduction falls far short of what the United States pledged in the Kyoto Protocol and, according to the center, would not be enough to avert catastrophic temperature increases.

Snape said, “This plan is a small step in the right direction, but certainly begs for something bigger and bolder.”

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