State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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The Presidency and Sustainability

As Americans watch the current presidential campaign, President Obama’s approval ratings continue to grow. We have a president in tune with contemporary culture, with his ego and insecurities in check as he faces the unique work of the American presidency. In President Obama’s second term, he has worked the seams of executive power to become America’s first sustainability president. While he has been hampered by the lack of new legislation and the absence of the new resources needed for green infrastructure, he has used many of the powers of the modern presidency to move the sustainability ball down the field.

The Obama administration has taken three specific executive actions I consider particularly important. The first and best known is the Clean Power Plan: the EPA regulation that requires states to develop greenhouse gas reduction plans. That rule is now on hold as the courts review its legality. The second is his November 2013 executive order, “Preparing the U.S. for the Impacts of Climate Change.” The third was an executive order he issued one year ago, “Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade.” I was reminded of both of these Executive Orders in a piece filed last week by New York Times reporter Tatiana Schlossberg about the Defense Department’s effort to provide an official, operational definition of the term “climate change.” Discussing the DOD climate change definition, Schlossberg observed:

“The definition was added as a result of two executive orders issued by President Barack Obama, which required several government agencies to prepare for climate change or achieve certain environmental benchmarks, including reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent over the next decade.”

In his classic work, Presidential Power, the late Professor Richard Neustadt famously observed that the “power of the presidency is the power to persuade.” That is clearly the case, but one tool of presidential persuasion is the executive order that results in the development of standard operating procedures in our massive federal government. The military, being the most hierarchical of federal agencies, hungers for clear operational definitions and standard operating procedures that allow it to clearly communicate policy and doctrine down through the ranks. The translation of policy into real-world behavior is far from self-implementing. Government officials must develop procedures and programs and allocate resources as well as build capacity to assure that those procedures and programs are carried out. The effort by the Defense Department to operationally define climate change is clear evidence that the policies established by the president in his executive order are actually being carried out. It may be routine, but it is an important routine.

Similarly, if you were to examine the actions of the U.S. General Services Administration in purchasing vehicles and leasing space you would also see concrete actions by the federal government to turn the huge ship of state around and sail it in the direction of environmental sustainability. President Obama’s sustainability executive order sets targets for government’s own energy and water efficiency as well as for the use of renewable energy. It requires every federal agency to develop sustainability plans and identifies a set of internal procedures to implement these plans. This is not the visible, newsworthy part of the transition to a renewable resource-based economy, but it is the type of behind the scenes, day-to-day work that makes public policy and presidential vision real. One should never underestimate the importance and power of these relatively prosaic tasks. The Governor of Florida may try to ban the term “climate change”, but he does not command millions of people in the U.S. military who now adhere to a clear, operational definition of the term.

The president’s accomplishments are particularly noteworthy given the toxic political environment he must operate within. Flint, Michigan’s water crisis provides an example of how partisan politics is dominating federal environmental policy. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA has the clear authority to act when people are in imminent danger from water pollution and state officials have fallen down on the job. But imagine the howls from right wing talk radio and the Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives if the Obama Administration had moved forcefully to take over Flint’s water system. Abuse of power and federal over-reaching would be the tamest part of their critique. Nevertheless, EPA Administrator McCarthy’s recent testimony before Congress blaming Michigan for causing Flint’s crisis misses the point and is an abdication of federal responsibility. Her claim that: “It was not EPA at the helm when this happened”…is wrong. EPA is always responsible for environmental quality everywhere in the United States. EPA’s job is to be at the helm and only delegate responsibility to states when state governments are able to meet those responsibilities. McCarthy’s EPA Midwestern Regional V Administrator understood that and resigned. I don’t think resignation is the answer, but accepting responsibility is.

As difficult as Flint’s politics has been, it is important to also understand how environmental issues have become part of the mainstream of American politics and President Obama’s contribution to this evolution. Once the facts of the Flint water crisis became known, a broad national consensus developed about the need for a rapid remedial response to fix the damaged water system. We saw a similar consensus develop in the 1970s about air pollution and in the 1980s about toxic waste. When toxics enter people’s homes, water faucets or lungs, politics fade away and government’s responsibility for public safety and security takes over. People may not believe a climate model or acknowledge the fact that last year was the warmest on record, but they do know yellow air and brown water when they see it. And parents know toxic pollution is a threat to their children’s health.

In his second term as president, Barack Obama has attempted to build on America’s environmental consensus by pushing climate, energy, air and water policies that will accelerate the transition to a renewable economy. The federal government is the largest single purchaser of goods and services in the United States. When it decides to purchase green goods and services it helps create a certain and stable market for those goods and services.

The existing structure of American environmental law and regulation needs to be updated, but still includes an impressive array of tools that can be deployed by a determined and principled president. After Congress rejected cap and trade legislation early in President Obama’s tenure, his team eventually figured out how to use existing authorities to regulate greenhouse gases. The set of sustainability executive orders and regulations issued by his administration has been consistent and allowed the federal government to clearly communicate policy direction to the private sector. In turn, many private sector decision makers are already assuming that investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy and other sustainability practices will pay off due to both competitive forces and changes in the regulatory environment. All of which serves to hasten the transition to a renewable resource based economy.

It is not neat and it’s far from aesthetically pleasing, but taken together these steps are having an impact. Which leads to the final point of this essay. In the case of sustainability policy and management, the president really matters. An anti-environmental president coupled with an anti-sustainability congress would greatly impede the transition to a renewable economy. I assume the American people are smart enough to keep that from happening, but we’ll know more next November.

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