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Obama could make climate progress internationally even if he’s hobbled at home

Photo by The White House.

What are the possibilities and prospects for action on climate change if Barack Obama is reelected?

Real talk: Obama will get very little done on climate or energy domestically, especially if Republicans keep the House, most especially if they win the Senate too. The reasons are drearily familiar: deep polarization, corporate influence, and the 60-vote threshold in the Senate. Unless some large and unanticipated exogenous force knocks the system out of equilibrium, we can expect more of what the first term delivered, which is modest (read: woefully insufficient) progress on efficiency and clean energy.

But I've been thinking lately that Obama might still be able to make progress on climate through foreign policy.

It's clear that Obama sees climate as a legacy issue, something that could improve the world in an enduring way. In a recent piece on Obama's second-term prospects, Ezra Klein said: "Beyond the deficit, Obama's advisers see two big unfinished pieces of business from the first term: climate change and immigration reform." On the campaign trail, Obama has mentioned, in the context of a second-term agenda, "the long-term challenges that we're facing in terms of energy independence and climate change." In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Obama said: "I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we're going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way."

But "legacy" and "long-term" are apparently not for the here and now, because as far as I know, he hasn't mentioned climate change since, not even during the recent drought. He's clearly not trying to make it part of his mandate in this election.

But! Presidents have a freer hand in foreign policy, and that's where they often make their mark, particularly in a second term, as both Klein and Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker have pointed out. Both mention that Obama’s team anticipates a “pivot” or “rebalancing” away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region. Climate could be part of that pivot.

Read more: Climate Policy, Politics

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U.S. leads the world in cutting CO2 emissions — so why aren’t we talking about it?

Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. is making progress on climate change.

We have cut our carbon emissions more than any other country in the world in recent years -- 7.7 percent since 2006. U.S. emissions fell 1.9 percent last year and are projected to fall 1.9 percent again this year, which will put us back at 1996 levels. It will not be easy to achieve the reductions Obama promised in Copenhagen -- 17 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2020 -- but that goal no longer looks out of reach, even in the absence of comprehensive legislation.

Why isn't this extraordinary story a bigger deal in U.S. politics? You'd think Obama would be boasting about it! Turns out, though, it's a little awkward for him, since several of the drivers responsible are things for which he can't (or might not want to) take credit.

Read more: Climate Policy

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From top-down to bottom-up: New directions for climate at Rio+20

A version of this article originally appeared on Real Climate Economics.

In 2009, I published a book with Graciela Chichilnisky, Saving Kyoto, that argued passionately for preserving the economic and political architecture of the only international treaty on climate change the world has known -- the Kyoto Protocol. The book was timely: The countdown to compliance with Kyoto’s mandated emissions targets had begun; the international community was gathering that year in Copenhagen to negotiate the next round of climate commitments; and there was hope that the Obama administration could usher the U.S. back to the negotiating table in earnest.

More importantly from my perspective, however, was the growing realization that the window of opportunity for stabilizing the earth’s climate system was rapidly coming to a close. The urgency of the crisis demanded immediate, extensive emissions reductions. And I firmly believed that a coordinated international effort that mandated reductions from the world’s largest emitters was the fairest and most efficient way to stave off climate disaster.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the famous Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the international governance framework that eventually gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol. As the global community convenes again this week in Rio to establish goals and strategies for sustainable development for the next 20 years, its failures to arrest climate change over the last 20 years will be hard to deny. But it will also be hard to ignore the real energy, innovation, and progress around climate change that is emerging from the ground up all over the world.

Read more: Climate Policy

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Updates from the Rio Earth Summit, day one

The Earth Summit in Rio begins today. What's that? You thought it started weeks ago? Very understandable.

You can watch the plenary sessions here, or streaming below.

Later today, 17 year-old Brittany Trilford will speak to the assembly. (You can read Greg Hanscom's interview with her here.) We'll update this post after she does.

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New York court backs greenhouse gas initiative, draws Sauron’s eye

This is the U.S. Supreme Court. It's more photogenic than New York's.

New York state can continue to participate in a multistate effort to curb greenhouse gases, after a court dismissed a conservative legal challenge to the effort, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

From a report by The New York Times:

Members of Americans for Prosperity, a group founded and largely financed by oil industry interests, filed the suit last year in state Supreme Court in Albany against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and two state agencies, arguing that the program imposed what amounted to an illegal tax on electric ratepayers.

The group said that by making power companies pay for their carbon dioxide emissions, the program imposed costs that the companies then passed on to consumers. Such “coercive taxes” are illegally levied without approval from the state legislature, the group argued.

But in a decision signed on Tuesday, Thomas J. McNamara, an acting State Supreme Court justice, wrote that the plaintiffs lacked the standing to press their case because they had failed to establish that they had suffered a “distinct” injury from New York’s participation in RGGI (pronounced reggie).

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Secretary Clinton will represent the U.S. at Earth Summit

From a report at The Hill:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will lead the U.S. delegation at the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (dubbed Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the State Department announced Tuesday.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will act as alternate head of the delegation and Todd Stern, special envoy on climate change, will act as chief negotiator.

Read more: Climate Policy

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Solving the climate crisis means saying yes and no

A version of this article originally appeared on Grip on Climate.

David Roberts here at Grist and Stephen Lacey at Climate Progress kicked off a good discussion last week about the roles of “yes” and “no” in climate work. This would-be schism dominates Climate Solutions’ strategy sessions, so I must weigh in.

Climate Solutions is a "yes" outfit. Roberts nailed our MO: We’re all about “forging of opportunistic coalitions.” We accept “compromise, tedium, and endless setbacks.” Roberts says “it’s just more fun to rage against The Man,” but we’re actually to the point where we revel in “the boring of hard boards.” Our mission statement even makes it sound romantic, adventurous: “ ... galvanizing leadership, growing investment, and bridging divides”!

Here’s the thing, though: With no meaningful climate policy commitment -- no binding emission limits, no carbon pricing, not even a clean energy standard -- the awesome work of building a clean energy economy is proceeding in parallel to the unfolding disaster of climate disruption, rather preventing it. We can say “yes” 'til we’re blue in the face, but we can’t call it “climate solutions” unless we stop the beast.

Read more: Climate Policy, Politics

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U.N. report: ‘Oh, man.’

Photo by jlusterPhoto by jluster.

First, the good news: The world has made some progress on its climate goals! Or, as the headline of the U.N.'s press release about the fifth edition of its Global Environmental Outlook puts it: World Remains on Unsustainable Track Despite Hundreds of Internationally Agreed Goals and Objectives.

Oh. The BBC summarizes a portion of the unhappy findings thusly:

  • Air pollution indoors and outdoors is probably causing more than 6 million premature deaths each year.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions are on track to warm the world by at least 3 degrees C on average by 2100.
  • Most river basins contain places where drinking water standards are below World Health Organization standards.
  • Only 1.6 percent of the world's oceans are protected.

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Climate change’s worst enemy is its first victim: The city

This is a gorgeous infographic. Go look at it. Scroll through. Savor. Appreciate the design -- but pay attention to the point.

The presentation is by C40, a group of 58 cities that work together to share information and best practices about addressing climate change. (Here's previous Grist coverage of the group.) Key points from the presentation, quoted directly:

  • Almost 50 percent of cities are already dealing with the effects of climate change, and nearly all are at risk.
  • Over 90 percent of all urban areas are coastal, putting most cities on Earth at risk of flooding from rising sea levels and powerful storms. [In fact, that process has already begun.]
  • Larger cities have a ravenous appetite for energy, consuming 2/3 of the world's energy and creating over 70 percent of global CO2 emissions.
  • Today, over 4,700 climate change actions are in effect in the nearly 60 Cities of the C40, with almost 1,500 further actions under active consideration.

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The top five things voters need to know about conservatives and climate change

Five! (Photo by woodleywonderworks)I've seen a recent surge of stories about conservatives and climate change. None of them, oddly, tell voters what they most need to know on the subject. In fact, one of them does the opposite. (Grrrr ...)

I respond in accordance with internet tradition: a listicle!

5. Conservatives have a long history of advancing environmental progress. In a column directed to Mitt Romney, Thomas Friedman reels off (one suspects from memory) "the G.O.P.'s long tradition of environmental stewardship that some Republicans are still proud of: Teddy Roosevelt bequeathed us national parks, Richard Nixon the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, Ronald Reagan the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer and George H. W. Bush cap-and-trade that reduced acid rain." This familiar litany is slightly misleading, attributing to presidents what is mostly the work of Congresses, but the basic point is valid enough: In the 20th century, Republicans have frequently played a constructive role on the environment.