President Obama’s Climate Change Speech: Future Implications

By Pardee Center Director Anthony Janetos

Janetos HeadshotPresident’s Obama recent speech on climate change, and the policies that will accompany it, have already received an enormous amount of public attention. The expected political responses accompanied the announcements as soon as talking points were made public. But after the initial excitement, what can now be said about the proposed changes in US policies?

I think we can see three major changes in direction for the US, as these aspirations begin to be put into action. First, there is now a clear direction for US policies relevant to climate change – at least for those policies that are essentially under the control of the Executive branch. Concerns for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing energy efficiency, and coping with change that cannot be averted will now be considered in a coordinated fashion, rather then being attempted on a piecemeal basis, with some agencies paying attention and others not. The net effect of this policy coordination should not be underestimated. While climate change policy will not be the measure of all environmental policy, it will be a consideration in decisions that affect our energy supplies, our air and water quality, building codes, and coastal hazards; the effects of a changing physical climate system in these areas will become an acknowledged factor in policies going forward.

The second main lesson is that there is a commitment to action on three aspects of climate policy – reducing greenhouse gas emissions, coping with damages that cannot be averted, and continuing to invest in both research and technology development. Each is important in its own way. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is simple to understand, of course, and that is what the vast majority of public debate about climate change has focused on. But it is just as important to recognize that we are already seeing the impacts of change in climate on natural resources, on coastal infrastructure, on water resources, and on our lives and prosperity.

The physics of the climate system, and the demonstrated sensitivity of many sectors to climate variability essentially dictate that we will see more climate-driven effects in future decades. For the first time it now appears that US policy will recognize what US and international science already knows, and what local, regional, and state-level practices in many places already address: we must begin to adapt and cope with the changes we are seeing and can anticipate.

But even as we begin to formulate policies for emissions and adaptation, we need to remember that there is still much we do not know about how these systems work, what innovative practices will succeed, and what new technologies can be developed that will be helpful. Continued investment in these areas will make the evolution of our strategies more effective than current options. And because it will inevitably take decades for many policies to have their full effect, we need to think as much about policy evolution as we do about today’s policies.

The third lesson is that while there are things we can do now, there are other policy measures that will take some time to work out. For example, we won’t see the plans for limiting emissions from existing power plants for at least another year, and implementing those plans under the Clean Air Act will inevitably take even more time. But the Executive Branch has the authority to produce such policies, and ultimately to implement them; the fact that we cannot calculate their potential effects right now should not obscure the intent and authority to implement them.

Leadership by the US is also important. Effective action by any large emitter like the US will ultimately play a large role in reducing the rate of change in climate – and thus the rate of change in climate impacts — especially if such action can be taken in the near-term. The importance of multilateral action by the large emitting countries is additionally important over time. But while US actions will not determine what others will choose, they will serve as a powerful example when the largest single economy in the world takes concrete steps towards a more secure climate future.

Finally, although many understandably view US decisions about climate policy through a domestic lens, it is important to recognize the global consequences. There is a strong consensus in scientific assessments that climate change is already holding back development progress in some of the world’s poorest countries, and that without action on both mitigating emissions and developing adaptation strategies, that trend will continue. So the US actions, as they unfold, will become important not just for us, but for parts of the world most in need of progress – truly an issue for the longer-term future.