For those waiting for the president to do something on climate change, Obama has offered two signs that action is imminent. The public sign came during his speech today in Berlin. The more subtle signal came in conversation with groups about to sue him for his inaction.
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Today's Berlin speech drew intentional and obvious comparisons to then-candidate Obama's Berlin appearance in July 2008. And he echoed some of the same themes, including on climate change. In 2008, he said that "all nations — including my own — will act with the same seriousness of purpose as has your nation, and reduce the carbon we send into our atmosphere."
Today, in 91-degree heat, he rightly argued that his nation has done exactly that: increasing fuel efficiency standards and vastly increasing investment in renewable energy. "Our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate before it is too late," a sweat-covered Obama concluded — a line that the official White House Twitter account immediately sent out.
While the country has made progress on curbing carbon dioxide emissions, a leading contributor to global warming, that's something of an economic accident. As articulated by David Roberts at Grist, those reductions stem largely from the slower economy and the correlated drop in electricity demand, and the glut of cheap natural gas that has resulted from improved hydraulic fracturing systems. After all, coal-powered electricity generation is the leading cause of U.S. CO2 emissions. Using less power and less coal power has kept those emissions down.
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But the president has repeatedly failed to enact new rules limiting emissions from those coal plants, first hoping that Congress would create a carbon dioxide market (it didn't), and then presumably out of concern that an executive mandate might hurt his re-election chances. A court ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant which the EPA must regulate, after all, meaning that the president is legally obligated to have that agency take action by April, something that hasn't yet been done.
According to Reuters, however, such a rule may be imminent. A proposed lawsuit from a collection of states and environmental organizations over the delay has been postponed after the White House promised that action was imminent.
"Due to public reports that the president will be announcing major action on climate change very soon, the Attorney General has decided to postpone a lawsuit on this matter for a short period," said Melissa Grace, a spokeswoman for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
President Barack Obama reportedly told campaign donors last week he will unveil a package of measures to combat climate change, possibly including EPA curbs on power plant emissions.
Environmentalists have good reason to remain skeptical. Obama has repeatedly indicated that he would take dramatic climate action; to date, those proposals, while not insignificant, have been longer-term and piecemeal. Today's Berlin speech reflects the urgency of climate scientists. Perhaps, four-and-a-half years into his tenure, Obama's action soon will, too.