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Changing Climate-Change Climate?

The big question is how tightly Obama will clamp down on the energy industry.

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President Obama's June 25 speech on climate change was more than any other sitting U.S. President has said, or promised to do, on the issue. Given that we're in at least the seventh presidential term since human-caused climate change became a scientifically acknowledged threat, the kudos the speech earned from climate activists are understandable.

Pioneering Penn State climatologist Michael Mann praised Obama's "bold leadership." Joseph Romm, who runs the valuable Climate Progress blog, said the speech marked Obama's emergence as a "climate hawk." A coalition of Pennsylvania-based groups — including PennFuture, Penn Environment and the Evangelical Environmental Network — touted Obama's plan, especially his promise to limit carbon emissions from power plants. Obama also pledged to work to mitigate expected impacts of climate change, like the effects of flooding and drought on agriculture. (A White House release titled "Pennsylvania: The Threat of Carbon Pollution" also noted risks like more heat waves and worse air quality.)

Not everyone was thrilled, of course — and we don't mean just climate-change-deniers, or even pro-coal politicians like U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who labeled Obama's lower-carbon plan "a war on America." Watchdog group Public Citizen said the president's plan fell short of launching the "national mobilization" needed to confront this incipient crisis. Worse, said Public Citizen president Robert Weissman, Obama's "all of the above strategy" to increase domestic oil and gas production — and even exports — is a "disaster" that threatens to offset the good the plan might do, including further development of renewable energy.

Still, Obama cast confronting climate change in moral terms. "I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing," he said. And promising to reform the energy sector during a slow economic recovery takes political courage. The speech was "a big rhetorical step forward," says Pittsburgh-based filmmaker and climate activist Mark Dixon.

But don't give Obama too much credit. Sure, his renewed pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 sounds swell — except that 2005 was a near-peak of such emissions. "I think that's a pathetic goal," says Dixon. Experts like Romm say that by 2020, we instead need a reduction of at least 20 percent below the much-lower baseline of 1990 emission levels — and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

Moreover, Obama's "new national plan" consists heavily of stuff he had to do anyway. Take its centerpiece, those power-plant emission limits: They've been required ever since a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling mandated regulating carbon as pollution. The EPA just hasn't done it yet, and the big question is how tightly Obama will clamp down on the energy industry, which produces 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse emissions.   

Meanwhile, a regulatory change Obama didn't even mention might help determine how all this goes. In May, reassessing things like rising sea levels, his administration raised its official estimate of how much damage a ton of carbon pollution will cause — now and in the future — by about 60 percent. This "social cost of carbon" helps determine things like efficiency standards for cars and appliances. The price, now up to $38 per ton, lets regulators weigh the benefits of preventing pollution against the cost of achieving efficiency. (One ton of carbon emissions, for instance, is produced by burning about 100 gallons of gasoline.)

The new carbon price was first used to update efficiency standards for microwave ovens; emissions limits for coal-fired power plants could be next. But the process is fraught with uncertainty. For one, energy companies are sure to challenge any new standard in court, where the unavoidable subjectivity of predicting damages decades into the future might work against it.

Second problem: Many say that $38 figure is too low. The equivalent figure set by the United Kingdom, for instance, is $83. And in a 2011 paper published in the journal Economics, Stockholm Environment Institute researchers said a more accurate number might be as much as $900 a ton. The authors, Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth A. Stanton, added that at that price, spending even the estimated $500 a ton needed to create a zero-carbon society seems like a bargain.

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