US shows it’s getting serious about climate change at home and abroad

Obama Oval Office

The Obama administration has begun to match its talk on climate change with action. Will it continue? Photo: Pete Souza, 2014

It’s been a whirlwind week in the United States, where several recent developments have bolstered hopes of renewed climate action by the Obama administration.

In just a matter of days, the United States has sent a number of signals to the world acknowledging that both international commitments and domestic policy changes will be required if real action on climate change is to be taken.

Secretary of State John Kerry just wrapped up a climate diplomacy blitz that included releasing a statement that said the US will cooperate with China to “contribute significantly to successful 2015 global efforts” to control global warming.

Just a day after releasing the joint statement, Secretary Kerry characterized climate change as a “weapon of mass destruction” during a stop Indonesia. In his remarks, Kerry sent a decisive message that the world must begin taking urgent action on climate change:

The fact is that climate change, if left unchecked, will wipe out many more communities from the face of the earth. And that is unacceptable under any circumstances—but is even more unacceptable because we know what we can do and need to do in order to deal with this challenge.

It is time for the world to approach this problem with the cooperation, the urgency, and the commitment that a challenge of this scale warrants.

Secretary Kerry rounded up his tour with stops in Abu Dhabi, Tunis, and Paris.

On the home front, President Obama has begun to back up the rhetoric on climate change that he trotted out during his State of the Union Speech one month ago.

Partially in response to the record-breaking drought gripping California and other western US states, President Obama announced that he would push for a $1 billion climate mitigation fund. The fund would help communities protect against the effects of climate change as well as finance research and development to fight the effects of rising temperatures.

President Obama announced the proposal at a stop in California’s San Joaquin valley. Ordinarily an agricultural powerhouse, this region is seeing output dwindle and jobs disappear as California remains at the mercy of its driest year on record.

The administration also made new progress toward combatting climate change by announcing a new domestic policy for increasing the fuel efficiency of semis, buses, and heavy-duty vehicles—all major contributors to climate change.

President Obama asked the Environmental Protection agency and the Transportation Department to draft regulations by March 2015 that would hold these vehicles to higher fuel standards. The regulations, which are expected to be implemented before the end of Obama’s second term, would reduce oil imports and curb greenhouse gas emissions.

While these are clear signals that the US is changing its role as an impediment to climate progress in recent years, there remain several serious questions about how far the US is actually willing to go in the fight against climate change.

In the coming year President Obama will have the opportunity to reject the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would open the door for Canadian oil companies export heavy crude oil from the oil sands to export markets.

Beyond the Keystone decision there are concerns about the administration’s repeated embrace of “all of the above” energy strategy. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s recent approval of a $6.5 billion loan for nuclear development suggests that the Obama administration has not yet jettisoned this flawed strategy.

The President’s failure to deliver on his promises to end fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks also shows that Obama still needs to take further action to establish a strong legacy on climate change.

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