After a re-election that immediately followed the havoc Hurricane Sandy wreaked on the East Coast, President Obama mentioned climate change in his acceptance speech last night. Though the issue had not been strongly touched upon throughout his campaign, Sandy seemingly acted as a wake-up call. Obama had some choice words on the environment, and activists now look at what this means for critical climate and energy issues going forward.
Though some lament the lack of climate change talk ahead of the elections, one can agree that Obama has significantly tightened EPA regulations during his first term, including using his executive powers to cut carbon and mercury emissions from plants and utilities, culminating in what the Washington Post calls “the most sweeping attack on air pollution in U.S. history.”
The crackdown on coal emissions, moreover, enjoyed the benefit of an overall switch on the part of utilities from coal to natural gas. Domestic gas production increased under the Obama administration annually since 2008, resulting in less importation of oil and petroleum products. And stricter fuel efficiency standards were implemented, which are expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by six billion metric tons.
Most notably of all, Obama halted the Keystone XL pipeline project, a system for transporting crude oil between Alberta, Canada and multiple refineries in the U.S. The original route would have posed an ecological threat. But the pipeline has since been re-routed, its new path given the green light, much to the chagrin of concerned activists.
Given the President’s achievements, however, it was perhaps disturbing to environmentalists that climate science – not even mentioned in the first two presidential debates – had become nothing more than “climate silence” and fallen under the radars of Obama and Romney for the extent of their campaigns, with the exception of Romney sarcastically mocking the President for wanting “to stop the rise of the oceans.”
Enter Hurricane Sandy. The largest Atlantic hurricane on record, the superstorm pummeled the East Coast a week before the presidential elections, crippling large areas of New Jersey and New York City, and amounting to over $20 billion in damage.
Obama provided a quick and exceptional response to the storm, earning him the praise of N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and the official endorsement of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – the former Republican-turned-independent.
Afterward, the event proved to be the push the President needed to resume serious discussion on the environment, while Romney’s Republican Party friends continued their positions of climate change denial. Obama made it most evident on the night of his re-election that he intended to pursue a renewed focus on key climate science issues.
“We want our kids to grow up in an America … that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” he said in his acceptance speech. He also promised to work with Congress to “free ourselves from foreign oil.”
But important now is what Obama is going to do, environmentally speaking, in his second term. Environmentalists have expressed the need for the President to continue the crackdown on coal plant pollutants and continue to develop clean energy, including renewing the federal tax credit for wind power, which expires at the end of this year.
Preferably, Obama will take a hard line stance against climate change, rather than a moderate approach. “He can’t be on one end saying he wants to regulate pollution from power plants, and then on the other side OK-ing [the Keystone XL] pipeline that will help facilitate one of the largest CO2 emitters in the world,” said Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica, referring to greenhouse gas emissions that Canadian oil sands production would cause.
But in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Pica suggested, Obama’s environmental position has strengthened on all fronts. “Sandy changed the national discussion,” he remarked. “After Sandy, Obama’s going to do something about climate change.”
Bets Taylor, president of the climate strategy firm Breakthrough Solutions, felt optimistic, noting, “Obama indicated that climate will be a top priority in his second term. There is reason to feel hope. We have moved from [“climate silence”] to a growing mandate for action.”