President’s Climate Plan a Bridge to Nowhere?

climate change president talkLeading up to last week I was excited about the prospect of getting excited about the President’s new climate change plan. Given the level of secrecy and surprise that created all of the build-up to the plan that would map out the environmental goals of the administration’s second term, I was waiting eagerly for a chance to help spread the seeds of environmental progress around the digital ecosystem.

And then it came and went.

In reading over the 21 page document that is the President’s proposal for climate action, I found myself a little underwhelmed. It is not that its goals are irrelevant. It is not that the plan is not a balanced approach. And it is not that its goals are unbelievable–on the contrary, many would argue that even these goals are not enough to stem the problems resulting from climate change.

My problem with the plan is that it is more of a roadmap for the administration’s progress on climate-related issues rather than the country’s. Many have noted that the avenue for most of the goals in the proposal focus on the executive office of the President, effectively sidestepping Congress. While all recent evidence points to Congress’s inability to compromise on much of anything, the eventual need for their participation is inevitable. Congress represents large portions of American citizens who still do not understand why a move towards sustainability is important; how it will create jobs; how it will make us a healthier country. Leaving them out of the conversation will only push the debate farther down the road.

The document notes that:

“Just as no country is immune from the impacts of climate change, no country can meet this challenge alone.”

I agree completely, but could the same not be said for the government? I am not sure that the executive office can tackle this challenge alone either.

What I would have hoped for, and still hope for, is that the administration can deliver on making compromises in the name of progress. With a political field that is so stubbornly (and ineffectively) divided, we need bridge builders. We need new alliances, new agreements, new participants, even if it means that neither side will end up getting exactly what it wants. While few parties may be able to play the role of the executive branch, we need more people to be playing a role.

President Obama’s position and goals would have been more worthwhile if his announcement had come with a series of agreements that had already happened. His HFC agreement with China was a productive start, but why not have similar conversations with India, Japan, the EU and South America? Each one of those locations may have slightly different goals, but there is room for sustainable productivity in each case. An environmental leader would see the utter failure that international meetings on environmental policy have been and decided to bridge the gaps himself. Coming with that announcement to complement his plan would have been powerful.

There was no mention of other elected officials, from Congressional members, to governors, to mayors, that could interface in a specific way with his plan and wanted to play an active role. In the aftermath of the speech, there were relatively few supporters outside of the pro-environment organizations that fight for these kinds of measures everyday. On the contrary, even Democrats from coal producing states were staking out their territory against the effort. Whether the President wants to build alliances from the top down or the bottom up is fine, but building them is important and much more effective than just pushing agendas (even good ones).

The business world is another absent player, particularly the natural gas industry. While natural gas is a fossil fuel and does contribute carbon-dioxide to the atmosphere, its improvement over coal and oil power generation is significant in greenhouse gases as well as harmful air pollutants. Despite its questionable status in the eyes of the environmental community, it will play a key role in our energy portfolio for a long time. There need be no better results of having natural gas as an ally than helping to minimized coal power generation. Combined-cycle natural gas facilities (like this one) can be the most efficient fossil fuel plants we have, even more so if they can tap into cogeneration with local uses for waste heat. Getting them to the table could mean advances in more environmentally sound extraction methods and more efficient turbines.

While I appreciate the efforts of the President and agree with most of the measures offered in his plan, we need more traction in getting more parties involved. A series of executive orders, though maybe successful in achieving short term change, will undoubtedly be mired in legal battles that only crystallize the practice of opposition for its own sake. Connectivity and debate are more than desirable, they’re essential to accomplishing anything that will stick.

Image Credit: the guardian