Obama speaks on climate change during his commencement address at West Point on May 28.
President Obama will announce new EPA climate regulations on Monday — and assuming they survive court challenges, they are expected to be the most significant global warming emissions cuts ever put in place by any U.S. president.
The proposed regulations, which will set limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants and leave states and companies with the flexibility to determine how best to meet the standards, are scheduled less than a week after Obama spoke with unusual bluntness of the need for the U.S. to be "out in front" of international efforts to reach a new climate agreement, scheduled to take place in Paris next year.
These steps, along with the president's climate action plan, signal the White House's intention to make climate change a top priority during the rest of the president's second term, and to reposition the U.S. to be a leader in international climate talks.
In a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point Wednesday, Obama said the only way to have credibility abroad is to take significant steps on climate change at home.
"You see, American influence is always stronger when we lead by example. We can’t exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everybody else. We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if a whole lot of our political leaders deny that it’s taking place."
He described climate change as a military issue, given the potential for extreme weather and climate events to destabilize countries and involve the U.S. in humanitarian and other missions. Climate change, Obama said, is "a creeping national security crisis that will help shape your time in uniform, as we are called on to respond to refugee flows and natural disasters and conflicts over water and food. Which is why next year I intend to make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet."
While Obama has talked about climate change on numerous previous occasions, including a speech devoted to the subject in June 2013, he had not previously spoken so forcefully about leading the charge internationally. For example, when appearing at a State Dinner with French President Francois Hollande in February, Obama said of U.S.-French cooperation:
"Together, we will also rise to the challenge of climate change. Paris will be hosting the climate change conference in 2015. It is up to us to convince our major partners to take the necessary steps before it is too late."
In an interview with Mashable, David Waskow, director of the international climate action initiative for the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank, said the West Point speech did not represent a significant new policy, but that it "did, however, take it to a new level in making explicit the administration’s intent to create a very strong global framework next year.”
“The tone at West Point stood out, and the timing wasn’t coincidental,” Waskow said.
Waskow says the speech dovetailed with the expected rollout of the EPA regulations, which the international community is watching closely to see how serious the U.S. is about meeting its emissions reduction goals, including the goal Obama agreed to in 2009 of reducing emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.
On Thursday, the New York Times reported that the emissions regulations, which will affect hundreds of existing coal-fired power plants, will call for up to 20% cuts in overall power plant emissions.
Coal-fired power plants comprise 37% of all electric power generation capacity in the U.S., just behind natural gas. But they also account for the vast majority of the electricity-sector's greenhouse gas emissions. This makes the rules, which rely on the administration's executive authority, so important. (The White House has taken other actions to address emissions from other sectors, including transportation.)
"This is the rubber-hits-the-road moment, in a sense," Waskow said. He called the new rules "a significant step by the administration — and they’ll be seen that way, if the rules really move in a credible way to achieving the commitments the U.S. has already made internationally.”
Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, told Mashable the West Point speech did not indicate a change in administration policy, and the climate portion of the speech "is not new news." Hayden pointed to the Hollande visit as an example of the President speaking publicly about leading in international talks.
Also on Thursday, the White House Council on Economic Advisors released a report from the president's Council on Economic Advisors highlighting the country's progress in becoming energy independent while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The report claims that from 2005 to 2011, the U.S. reduced its "total carbon pollution" more than any other country, and now comprises about 15% of global carbon emissions. Much of this came by accident, via lower natural gas prices and a boom in domestic energy production.
Although the jury is still out on how much natural gas production releases methane, a more potent short-term global warming gas compared to carbon dioxide, the report's focus on carbon reductions-to-date means these trends could bolster America's credibility and case for action in Paris next year.
The climate policy push amounts to an end run around Congress, where a majority of Republican House members are skeptical of mainstream climate science findings. It follows the release of a series of major scientific reports.
All of these reports, from the United Nations and the U.S. government, found that climate change is having more widespread and severe impacts than previously thought, and that time is running out to prevent far more severe consequences, from devastating amounts of sea level rise to disruption of food supplies.