Is the White House Worried About a Possible Republican President Overturning Obama's Climate Legacy?

ObamaSignPhotoAude Guerrucci/Pool via Bloomberg News

President Barack Obama views addressing the problem of climate change as a key part of his legacy and remains staunchly committed to implementing as much of his climate action plan as possible prior to leaving office, a senior aide said May 13.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told the Association of Climate Change Officers' Climate Strategies Forum that Obama receives weekly written updates and biweekly oral presentations about the implementation of his climate action plan. That level of commitment shows how personally vested the president is in seeing his plan completed, according to Holdren.

Obama recognizes global progress at addressing climate change depends upon joint leadership from the U.S. and China, and Holdren said both nations have already launched intense negotiations in hopes of reaching a 2015 international climate treaty in Paris.

Holdren said he is not concerned a potential Republican presidential administration in 2017 would undo much of Obama's work on climate change, but said the president hopes to complete as much of his climate agenda as possible during the remainder of his presidency.

Key actions the president hopes to complete include finalizing carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants, completing new fuel efficiency standards, and implementing aspects of a strategy to reduce methane emissions, according to Holdren.

“Clearly the president regards this as part of his legacy to really turn the country around on climate change and he aims to get that done,” Holdren said. “I'm not terribly worried about reversal in 2017, but I do want to get done—and the presidents wants to get done—as much of this as possible on his watch.”

Plan Launched in June 2013

Obama announced his plan for addressing climate change during a June 2013 address at Georgetown University by emphasizing three areas for action: mitigating contributing factors to climate change in the U.S. such as carbon pollution from power plants, building resiliency and preparedness to adapt for the impacts of climate change, and leading international efforts to take concerted global action to address the problem.

The Environmental Protection Agency has taken the lead in the mitigation part of the climate plan and will announce proposed guidelines for limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants June 2.

Obama and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have never held a meeting without discussing climate change, Holdren said. The Chinese are much more serious about taking action than many give them credit for, he added.

“The fact is the Chinese leadership—many of whom are trained as engineers by the way—they understand what damage climate change is already doing to China,” Holdren said. “China is not coming on board because the United States is saying, ‘It would be nice to have you.’ China is coming on board because they understand this is a problem that threatens their future.”

Leadership from the U.S. and China will be key as nations work toward an international agreement in 2015, Holdren said. Industrial nations will look for the U. S. and developing nations will look to China for leadership during negotiations.

“No matter what the United States does about our emissions, if we can't get other countries to go along—most importantly China, but also the European Union, Russia, India and Japan and so on—the global problem cannot be solved,” Holdren said. “We've got to get all of the big emitters on board.”

Pleased With Climate Assessment

Holdren said the launch of the National Climate Assessment went well and dismissed critics of the report for “making themselves look pretty silly.” The report provided actionable science and was thoroughly reviewed multiple times by a group of experts representing varied interests, he said.

“It is a science document and not a political one,” Holdren said.

The climate assessment listed numerous impacts from climate change broken out regionally. Extreme weather events such drought, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and flooding have already increased and will continue to do so, the report concluded.

An obstacle for Obama during the final years of his presidency will be implementing the climate agenda despite continuing efforts from critics to “muddy the waters.” The president also needs to continue efforts to raise the visibility of the issue in the minds of Americans, Holdren said.


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