Four More Years: The Environment in Obama’s Second Term

January 14, 2013

Michelle Obama

With Obama’s second inauguration day arriving in one week, environmentally-minded Americans are looking forward to seeing what the next four years will bring with respect to energy and the environment.

The Obama administration kept environmental issues as a steady, if not a central, priority during the past term. While the administration’s lax stance on offshore drilling safety requirements and enthusiasm for natural gas exploration have been a disappointment to environmentalists, the last four years brought progress on a number of environmental priorities. The Center for American Progress outlined a list of ten energy priorities in 2008, and recently published a summary of the progress that the Obama Administration has made.

The CAP reports that during the past four years, the average fuel economy of cars has increased, we have taken initial steps to limit carbon pollution from vehicles, mercury pollution from power plants has been cut by 90 percent, and investments in clean energy and efficiency have increased.

At the same time, Congress failed to approve a bill to reduce carbon pollution with cap and trade, which passed the House but not the Senate. The same scenario happened with a bill to establish a national renewable electricity program. Although we made some progress in efficiency investments, we have a long road ahead of us.

This election cycle was a positive one for our Senate. The League of Conservation Voters, which campaigns for conservation-friendly candidates, won seven of the eight seats they campaigned for, including those of Mark Heinrich, Tammy Baldwin, and Chris Murphy. They praised the appointment of John Kerry as Secretary of State, but rated the House as “the most anti-environmental House in history.” (Living on Earth, 9 January, 2013.)

Though Obama was largely silent on climate change and the environment during his campaign, he did cite climate change as a major threat in his victory speech. The win of a second term could allow him to place more focus on these issues, especially since he will be ineligible for reelection and more free to exercise his legislative power on controversial initiatives. Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, agreed that the current administration will be tested in “how far it is willing to go in using executive power” for the purpose of environmental protection, because Congress will, despite the Senate wins, likely not be strong enough to achieve the progress we need. (Living on Earth, 9 January, 2013)

In the New York Times article, “A To-Do List for the Next Four Years,” two environmental experts weighed in on what Obama should prioritize in the second term.

Christine Todd Whitman, former Administrator of the EPA, cited Hurricane Sandy as evidence that climate change should be a central focus of the administration. Carol Browner, who directed the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy from 2009 to 2011, and served as administrator of the EPA from 1993 to 2001, cited energy and climate change as “unfinished business” from the past four years. Like Karpinski, she said that Obama can leverage existing energy laws like the Clean Air Act and use his executive authority to reach meaningful change on these issues.

Although the preservation of our environment never rests in the hands of only one person, it looks as though the country’s most powerful man will hold a lot of sway in the realms of energy and the environment for the next four years.

-Sharon Hartzell

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