Obama's climate image blurs as he nears last half of presidential term

Barack Obama was considered a climate change savior 20 months ago, rushing into the White House with promises to price carbon, accelerate renewable energy technology and participate in a worldwide effort against global warming.

He was a champion to environmentalists and sometimes described the atmospheric impacts of unregulated emissions as a threat to his own family. Global warming, he said in 2007, is not "a someday problem; it is now."

But the legislative remedy would have to wait. Now, nearly two years into Obama's term, the president's climate image has changed. He is no longer a champion to some, and others are astonished at his administration's unenthusiastic support of a climate bill in the Senate this year. It failed without a vote.

"I think that they do not take the issue as seriously as they said they would, and they do not take the issue as seriously as it must be taken," said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate blogger with the Center for American Progress. "It's disheartening when the president walks back a major commitment. Yes, that's disheartening."

It's unclear, however, whether the country feels the same way. Obama has ranked among the most trusted public officials on climate change in polls. He has overtaken former Vice President Al Gore in some surveys but is easily outpaced by scientists -- who earn the trust of about three-quarters of Americans.

So, could the president's climate appeal -- tarnished in Washington -- reduce his likely supporters? Could his recent maneuvering, including prioritizing health care and financial reform at climate's expense, cool Congress' efforts to stem emissions?

"There absolutely could be repercussions. If one doesn't show the leadership to make the case, that's a decision by inaction," Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University's Center of Excellence in Climate Change Communication Research, said of Obama's decision to stay in the margins of the Senate climate debate.

"Has that eroded his credibility? I suppose it could have, but my guess is it didn't," Maibach added. "But I do think it was a contributing factor to the demise of climate legislation this year."


Climate policy pollster Christopher Borick, an associate professor of political science at Muhlenberg College, said that expectations were so high for Obama that he was bound to fall short. And he did.

"I guess it's just a matter of what degree that disappointment reaches and what impact it has on moving forward," Borick said. "There'll be a degree of caution among congressional leaders that have put themselves out there on this issue regarding any type of collaboration with the White House."

Administration antagonizes enviros

Questions about Obama's commitment to addressing emissions flared again last month, when the administration weighed in on the landmark climate case American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut. The Department of Justice submitted a legal brief encouraging the Supreme Court to throw out a decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmed the right to sue a collection of major electric utilities for their contributions to global warming.

The lawsuit seeks to force emitters to cap and reduce their emissions. The administration's action was unexpected. It enraged some environmental groups, which saw it as an attempt to blunt the public's power to combat emissions (Greenwire, Aug. 25).

The brief, which was filed by acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal on behalf of the Tennessee Valley Authority -- one of the defendants in the case -- argued that U.S. EPA is already taking over the role of regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The initial rules are set to take effect in January, so there is no need for lawsuits seeking similar results, the brief argued.

That stance was seen as a betrayal by some in the environmental community who view the threat of lawsuits as a key tool prompting utilities to reduce their carbon output. The administration, because of its brief, was cast as siding with polluters and leaving its environmental allies in the lurch.

"We are in a crisis, and we need to use all available avenues to reduce greenhouse emissions," said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute. "The Obama administration, rather than moving forward with reductions under the Clean Air Act expeditiously, which is what they should be doing, are busy closing doors to other solutions. And we should be moving forward with all avenues."

The DOJ brief argued that if local lawsuits claiming nuisance were allowed to proceed, there could be legal chaos, with courts deciding these issues on a case-by-case basis, "which is just not the way the court is supposed to work," said Jeff Holmstead, an industry attorney and former EPA air chief during the George W. Bush administration.

No bill, but other successes

Oliver Houck, an environmental law professor at Tulane University Law School, said he was "astonished" by the administration's decision to come off the sidelines on this issue, since these lawsuits are a common method employed to break logjams and spur action.

"The way the town works up there, all leverage matters," he said. "And to look at it purely on the merits of do we think this is a good case in the abstract? Well, hell, if they didn't think it was good in the abstract, just sit on your hands."

The brief, however, could also be seen as a sign of Obama's climate action through regulation, even as legislative efforts have wilted. Some legal experts describe DOJ's participation in the case as an effort to carve out federal jurisdiction around mandating greenhouse gas reductions. EPA, under Obama, has for the first time begun efforts to regulate carbon emissions.

Any brief from the solicitor general's office greatly increases the chance that the Supreme Court will decide to hear the case, according to Holmstead and other legal scholars.

Even through the haze of disappointment on some of these fronts, it's clear the Obama administration did not universally fall short with his climate agenda.

It dedicated billions of dollars of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to jump-start the green economy through grants for clean energy technology and weatherization programs. And Obama was hailed as the catalyst that brought something out of the international climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, last December, even if they did not result in the binding global deal that had been hoped for.

An anticipatory Nobel Peace Prize?

But that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement, said Keya Chatterjee, director of international climate policy for the World Wildlife Fund. When the Nobel Prize committee decided to give Obama the Peace Prize so soon after his election, it was widely viewed as encouraging the renewal of the United States' commitment to tackle global problems -- not the least of which is climate change.

"He won a Nobel Peace Prize in part because there was an expectation from the global community that [climate policy] would be an issue that would be tackled by the president," Chatterjee said.

As Obama closes in on the halfway mark of his term, "I think people around the world are looking to see if [climate] will really be a high-priority issue" and what his plan to cut emissions at home might be, she said.

It is not unprecedented to move forward with a big agenda item in the second half of a president's term, even if his party is not the majority in Congress, according to Russell Riley, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia Miller Center of Public Affairs.

He likened the Obama situation to that of President Clinton after the Republican revolution of 1994. Like Obama, Clinton had to make some tough decisions about what agenda item to push. He chose health care over welfare reform, all while the nation was grappling with a difficult economic downturn.

He failed. Yet Clinton still pressed successfully for welfare reform later in his first term.

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