Now that President Barack Obama’s so-called “two-year silence” on climate change has given way to new promises, a question hangs over Washington: What exactly is he going to do?
One of the few things that appear certain is he won’t go to Congress for help. Obama seems to have given up on that strategy, which failed in his first term, when lawmakers refused to adopt more stringent limits on greenhouse-gas emissions.
For a long time after that, including his re-election campaign, the president dropped climate change from his talking points, angering the environmental community. That silence didn’t end until he made it safely back to office.
Obama threw down the gauntlet in his inaugural address, and again in his February State of the Union speech, saying that if Congress didn’t move on a “bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change,” he’d manage on his own, by pushing rule changes at the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and other regulatory offices under his control. He nominated new members of his cabinet to press for those changes.
But Obama hasn’t said much since then. Much of that has to do with a barrage of more pressing concerns: gun control, immigration reform, and, now, the bombings in Boston.
But while the silence on climate change may be disconcerting to environmental activists, it doesn’t necessarily mean the issue is returning to the depths of Obama’s domestic agenda.
That’s because Obama’s new strategy doesn’t require him to take his case to lawmakers, or the public, for that matter. This time, he’s working behind the scenes.
“The president has put a very visible take in the ground in his State of the Union and inauguration speeches, and so he’d be hard-pressed, and his people would be hard-pressed, not to take a host of actions allowed under the law,” said Philip Sharpe, president of Resources for the Future, a non-partisan environmental think tank.
So, as Obama rushes from one crisis to another and spars with Congress on all sorts of contentious issues, he’ll be free to work within his administration on new regulations to control heat-trapping pollution from power plants, to tighten emissions standards on cars and to set new efficiency standards for appliances.
Guns, immigration, terrorism — none of those ongoing issues should derail the environmental effort, Sharpe said.
“Is all this public activity detracting from the issue? Of course it detracts from the president’s ability to make it a big public agenda item, to educate the public and bring along more groups,” Sharpe said. “It is a diminished opportunity, but not a deal killer.”
But there is a limit to the president’s power. And there remain political and economic considerations he has to make. So Obama’s regulatory push is expected to be more modest than what environmentalists hope to see — and what is needed to slow global warming.
Another big test will be the president’s decision on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver oil derived from the tar sands of Canada to Texas. Environmentalists oppose the plan because it would produce more greenhouse gases. But the project would also lead to new jobs and create a new source of oil from a friendly source.
Obama is widely viewed as leaning toward approving the pipeline.
“A lot of environmental groups are making it a litmus test for the administration on whether they’ll take action on the climate,” Sharpe said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how the administration handles this.”