What Just Happened

President Obama likes to greet his supporters with this headline. So, what happened during his first term on climate policy?

Just after the Presidential election last November, I joined a press briefing by an environmental journalist. Given how little news coverage climate change received during the Great Recession, I wasn’t expecting much. But Americans actually accomplished some surprising things during the past four years.

To put this in context, it was five years ago that scientists were suggesting we had perhaps five to ten years in which to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions if we hoped to avoid very severe consequences.

President Obama’s election in 2008 brought high hopes that America would finally start coming to grips with this crisis. The new administration responded by placing scientists in leading roles at key agencies including the Department of Energy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But the Great Recession, the extended battle over health care reform and the Tea Party’s obstructionist influence over the Republican Party brought a level of Congressional dysfunction that made efforts to even discuss meaningful energy reform look impossible.

It would be easy to think of President Obama’s first term as a lost opportunity at a crucial moment in history. It was in some ways, but the reality was actually more nuanced.

The President passed a doubling of vehicle efficiency standards, pushing the fleet average up to 54 mpg by 2025. This change will be felt gradually over a few decades, but it will push automotive innovation and alternative fuels forward and give consumers more options much sooner.

The economic stimulus included significant investments in renewable energy. Solyndra’s high-profile bankruptcy not withstanding, these investments will pay off in the years ahead.

The U.S. wind energy sector recorded its best year ever in 2012, partly because companies were hurrying to beat the possible end of the wind energy tax credit on December 31st. Solar installers saw a boom in 2012 too, yet wind and solar still only contribute a combined 5% to America’s total electric power supply.

In what some have called the most important decision in the history of environmental law, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. In spite of Republican efforts to gut agency’s authority, the EPA has tightened restrictions on coal, as well as the mercury emissions that accompany coal combustion.

The combination of these tighter regulations, plus a sharp drop in natural gas prices, led electric power companies to shift from coal to gas in a big way.

Coal dropped from producing 55 percent to 30 percent of America’s electricity, and coal company stocks dipped upon the President’s reelection. This is especially important because coal is still the fast-growing fossil fuel globally.

Last November, Americans gave Mr. Obama a second term. The real question is whether his administration’s behind-the-scenes progress, which relies heavily on the kinds of regulations conservatives oppose, will be accelerated by a genuine public discussion and energy policy reform.

We are seeing some signs of life at the state and local levels. For example, California held its first cap and trade auction in November, as the state implements the nation’s most aggressive global warming protection law.

California voters continued to affirm their support for clean energy policies at the ballot box too. As a result, California attracts the lion’s share of private investment in clean energy technologies. Given the Golden State’s enormous economic size, its influence on the rest of America could be significant.

A series of innovative solar financing schemes are appearing in some states, and they might help the industry keep growing as the Obama “green stimulus” dries up. A few cities and counties are even offering solar retrofit assistance or tariffs that require utility companies to purchase excess solar power from homeowners.

In other words, these past few years have seen a reduction in ideological grandstanding and a growth in pragmatic and wonky policies that enable and encourage clean energy.

America is making tangible progress, albeit slow, largely out of sight and without voicing a commitment to leadership on the world stage. Social marketers often say that ideas can lead to new behavior, but new behavior can also change our ideas.

Perhaps this is the road to change we’ve been witnessing. The President’s second term occupies a pivotal timeframe that will determine what our world will be like for centuries to come.

Are we ready to have this conversation at long last? The clock is ticking.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Statkraft via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.