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Lessons from President Obama’s Climate Action Plan

President Obama launched his Climate Action Plan on 26 June, at Georgetown University. The speech itself is worth watching rather than just reading, for the pleasure of admiring an accomplished orator at work – and for being able to observe the politics. Note, for example, the approving references to Republican Presidents Nixon and Bush Senior, presumably pitched to try and secure bipartisan support. Good luck with that!

However, I want to concentrate on the Action Plan published the same day, which is interesting for three other reasons to those of us who work on developing countries: first, for what it tells us about US emissions reduction; second, for general lessons about how to message climate change; and, third, most important, for insights into the potential of executive action.

US emissions reduction

First, but I won’t dwell on this, the Action Plan is obviously an important milestone in bringing down US carbon emissions, not a trivial issue for vulnerable developing countries - for example the members of the Climate Vulnerability Forum. Remember that President Obama has pledged to bring emissions down 17.5% from 2005 levels by 2020. This is not an especially demanding target, compared, say, to the EU, which has committed to a 20% reduction from 1990 levels by the same date. Given an increase in US emissions of about 17%  from 1990 to 2005, the US is likely to end up having made effectively no progress over a thirty year period, and from a much higher absolute and per capita base. This is if they meet the target, which they probably will, if only because of the move from coal to shale gas. Unfortunately, the Climate Action Plan does not sum the impact of its many additional measures. Still and all, you would rather President Obama was pushing forward on this than not.

Messaging climate change

Second, I’ve written several times before about the challenge of messaging climate change to a public with other things on their minds, including jobs, health provision and many other short-term issues. Readers may remember that I drew on wider literature on political messaging, including Drew Weston’s The Political Brain, and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I tried to write some paragraphs that put words into Obama’s mouth, but noted that he found his own, better words in the second Inaugural, in January this year. Those paragraphs are reproduced at the top of the Action Plan. They appeal, as Jonathan Haidt would say they should, not just to our caring side, but also to sacred duty, a sense of history and a natural optimism about the benefits of change. It’s worth reflecting on those two paragraphs. They read as follows:

‘We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure -- our forests and waterways, our croplands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

The Action Plan itself develops these themes. Having read Lakoff’s Don’t think of an elephant, which is partly about the language of politics, I especially liked the reframing of ‘carbon emissions’, as ‘carbon pollution’, an immediately familiar concept and one which cries out for action. I also liked the repeated emphasis on being measured and reasonable: the impression is that this is all perfectly sensible and manageable, nothing to frighten the horses. Indeed, we are reminded, a good deal is already happening: more than 35 US states, we are told, already have renewable energy targets,  and more than 25 have set energy efficiency targets.

At the same time, a sense of urgency is injected. For example, the Action Plan points out that there were more than 11 weather and climate disaster events last year (2012), with damage estimated at $US 110 bn.

US leadership is frequently invoked in the Climate Action Plan: I counted some two dozen references to US leadership in only 21 pages.

Finally, on this topic, the Action Plan is also strong on results. No measure is mentioned, but that we are told how much ‘carbon pollution’ will be avoided, how this compares to total annual emissions, and how many jobs will be created. Thus,  ‘since 2009, the Department of Interior has approved 25 utility-scale solar facilities, nine wind farms, and 11 geothermal plants, which will provide enough electricity to power 4.4 million homes and support an estimated 17,000 jobs’. Or passenger vehicle standards already approved ‘require an average performance equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, which will save the average driver more than $8,000 in fuel costs over the lifetime of the vehicle and eliminate six billion metric tons of carbon pollution – more than the United States emits in an entire year’. Note the clever segue from vehicle lifetime to annual national emissions.

The potential of executive action

Really, the most interesting aspect of the President’s Climate Action Plan is what it tells us about the potential of executive action. Everyone knows that Congress is unlikely to legislate in the near future on national targets, quotas, taxes, emissions trading or minimum carbon prices. Everyone also knows that the US is a federal system, in which States have a major say on policy. So the Action Plan is an exercise is working through what the President and the Federal Government can achieve, mostly on their own, so to speak, although with occasional calls on the Congress-approved budget.

You can just imagine the White House sending round an e-mail, tasking each and every federal Government body to identify what they can do on climate change. The Action Plan is an aggregation of the responses, and, sure enough, everyone is present: the Department of Energy, of course, and the Environmental Protection Agency, but also the Departments of Defence, Interior, Transportation, Agriculture, Labour, and Housing and Urban Development. Even the Department of Homeland Security is engaged. Among Agencies, FEMA (Emergency Management) has contributions to make, as do USAIDUnited States Agency for International Development and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

All these contributions are organised under three pillars, viz (a) cutting carbon pollution in America, (b) preparing the United States for the impacts of climate change, and (c) leading international efforts to address global climate change. More usefully, perhaps, the various actions can be classified as administrative, regulatory, financial, ‘managerial’ or international.

Administrative action

Administrative regulation can achieve a great deal. For example, it is interesting to learn that ‘the Department of Defense – the single largest consumer of energy in the United States – is committed to deploying 3 gigawatts of renewable energy on military installations, including solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal, by 2025. In addition, federal agencies are setting a new goal of reaching 100 megawatts of installed renewable capacity across the federally subsidized housing stock by 2020’. The Plan sets a target that the Federal Government will source  20% of its energy from renewables by 2020.

Regulatory change

Regulatory change also lies partly within the Presidential mandate. For example, the Action Plan talks about accelerated ‘permitting’: ‘since 2009, the Department of Interior has approved 25 utility-scale solar facilities, nine wind farms, and 11 geothermal plants, which will provide enough electricity to power 4.4 million homes and support an estimated 17,000 jobs. . . .  President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum this month that directs federal agencies to streamline the siting, permitting and review process for transmission projects across federal, state, and tribal governments’. The overall plan is to build on the existing permits issued for 10 GW of clean energy by the end of 2012, and to add a further 10 GW by 2020.

The EPA obviously has a clear role, though its mandate has been contested, I think. However, President Obama has issued a ‘Presidential Memorandum directing the Environmental Protection Agency to work expeditiously to complete carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. This work will build on the successful first-term effort to develop greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards for cars and trucks’. The Federal Government has set a target of doubling energy productivity by 2030 relative to 2010 levels (e.g. by improving appliance standards and housing)

Financial investments

On the financial side, the Federal Government funds a variety of initiatives, though presumably has to negotiate with Congress over the size and shape of the budget. Research features prominently: thus the President commits to (or wishes to?) keep the US at ‘the forefront of clean energy research, development, and deployment by increasing funding for clean energy technology across all agencies by 30 percent, to approximately $US 7.9 billion.’ There are also incentives to the private sector. Thus, ‘in the coming weeks, the Department of Energy will issue a Federal Register Notice announcing a draft of a solicitation that would make up to $8 billion in (self-pay) loan guarantee authority available for a wide array of advanced fossil energy projects under its Section 1703 loan guarantee program’.

‘Managerial change’

In terms of managerial change, the Action Plan promises many task forces or special planning exercises, for example on adaptation or climate preparedness. In February 2013, federal agencies released climate change adaptation plans for the first time. There will also be a quadrennial energy review. There are strong partnerships with States and local authorities in all this work.

The Federal Government is also promising to be active in linking to the private sector, and building public-private partnerships. For example. ‘the United States Navy and Departments of Energy and Agriculture are working with the private sector to accelerate the development of cost-competitive advanced biofuels for use by the military and commercial sectors’. There is talk of A Better Buildings Challenge and of Better Building Accelerators. There is also a section on working with the insurance industry – ‘promoting insurance leadership for climate safety’.

The international framework

Finally, at the international level, the Federal Government has an important role in negotiation, of climate and trade agreements, among others, both multilaterally and bilaterally, though of course Congress has a role.

The Climate Plan name-checks the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, the Clean Energy Ministerial, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollution, and of course the UNFCCC. It also highlights ‘the U.S. Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative, which aligns grant-based assistance with project planning expertise from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency and financing and risk mitigation tools from the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation to unlock up to $1 billion in clean energy financing; and the U.S.-Asia Pacific Comprehensive Energy Partnership, which has identified $6 billion in U.S. export credit and government financing to promote clean energy development in the Asia-Pacific region’. No promise to sign up to Kyoto, note.

There is also a reference to trade, with the Plan calling for global free trade in environmental goods and services. The document notes that in 2011, APEC economies agreed to reduce tariffs to 5 percent or less by 2015 on a negotiated list of 54 environmental goods.

Bilateral relationships are highlighted, including the recent Summit with China.


I haven’t listed all these initiatives in order to make the case that the US has done or is doing enough. It surely has not, yet. For example, there is a bland aspiration to end fossil fuel subsidies. Instead, what I find interesting is the systematic review of everything Government does, in order to identify opportunities for climate action. I guess some questions follow, about optimality, effectiveness, possible trade-offs, sequencing, value for money and all the other appraisal and evaluation issues which arise in assessing programmes. We can leave those issues to people who work on US policy. It is also relevant to ask, of course, whether sufficient progress can be made without legislating on price or cap and trade.

But are there not some lessons for developing countries in the way this was approached? Has any developing country approached the issue from a similar perspective?



# RE: Lessons from President Obama’s Climate Action PlanSimon Maxwell 2013-07-24 09:38
Hi Simon,

I was very interested to see the question at the end of your blog on President Obama’s Climate Action Plan – asking if a similar approach was being taken in reviewing developing country climate action, using the framing of administrative, regulatory, financial, ‘managerial’ or international action.

This is exactly the work that ODI:

• has completed with UNDP – as part of Climate Public Expenditure and Institutional Reviews (CPEIR) in Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand and Samoa.

• is completing as National Climate Finance Analyses (NCFA), in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda.

The CPEIR/NCFA work (primarily led by Neil Bird) assesses: climate relevant budget expenditure and institutions (administrative ) and national policies (regulatory) in each country – to support more effective climate finance delivery.

My work is to develop an additional approach to include a review of incentives (and disincentives) for the private sector (regulatory and financial) within that methodology.


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