climate agenda

Analysis: After his final State of the Union speech, what will US climate policies look like post Obama?

Obama delivers his final State of the Union speech. Photo credit: Reuters / Carlos Barria.

By Anders Lorenzen

When Obama delivered his final SOTU speech this month, there was now just a year left of his Presidential leadership. And no matter whether you sit on the Left, Centre or Right, there can be no argument that in his seven years in power he has transformed America. The Republican wing would say for the worse, whilst the Democratic wing would argue he has attempted to make America a more fair society. And seen from a climate change perspective, he is the first US President ever who, while facing a hostile climate-denying Republican party, has taken meaningful action on climate change.
Obama highlights his climate change achievements
He championed his achievements on climate change in this month’s SOTU speech. This was no surprise of course, as during this his last term in office, environmentalists have become accustomed to his pro-climate-change agenda. Making a change from his first where he hardly mentioned it. However, this last SOTU speech repeated his well-known rhetoric on clean energy, and how it has significantly increased during his time in office. He even teased Republicans who do not believe in climate change, saying they would be quite alone. Saying this, he was referring to all UN member countries who, last month in Paris, ratified the first-ever global deal to tackle climate change. Increasing numbers of businesses are now taking serious action on climate change, and the scientific evidence for climate change has never been stronger, the President remarked.
Obama’s economic case for action on climate change
Obama has very much made his argument an economic one. He explained how his administration has been reforming the US energy system, and he highlighted how, in many US states, green electricity from solar and wind was now cheaper than electricity from coal. Thus, his case for renewables is compelling: ‘why should we not be investing in the energy of the future?’, the US President said.
Is the age of climate scepticism in the US really in retreat?
The US has long been perceived as a country where much of the population does not believe in climate change. This is mainly fuelled by media influencing the Republicans and their voters, and it is even reaching fringe areas of the Democratic party. But Obama pointed out in his speech, that more and more Americans now believe in the reality of climate change. However, it does appear that even so, the majority of Americans do not believe this to be a critical issue. This is because they quite often rank the economy and job security above climate change and environmental problems. And we would need to ask if the majority of Americans really do see climate change as a crucial issue, why did they in the last US midterm elections vote for and elect candidates that do not believe in climate change? This action contributed to the Democrats losing the Senate, thus making it even harder for Obama to pass new climate policies, initiatives, incentives and laws.
Life after Obama
And this brings us nicely to the issue of life after Obama. Some environmentalists are starting to wake up to the notion that, whoever becomes the next US president, he or she is unlikely to be as strong on climate change as Obama. The ultimate disaster for all Obama’s climate change laws and policies would be a Republican president. While they all more or less dismiss the reality of climate change, some are worse than others. Some will seek to overturn all his climate laws while others might be less aggressive. On paper, the least bad Republican president would probably be Jeb Bush and the worst, quite likely Donald Trump. The latter candidate is currently leading the Republican race. Jeb Bush has been inconsistent in his views, as at one point he seemed to suggest that he believed in climate change, but then quickly changed course.
USA’s new President unlikely to be as strong as Obama on climate change
Hillary Clinton is expected to win the Democratic nomination. Were she to win the presidency, it is likely that she would stick with Obama’s policies and laws, while also introducing new ones. But she is unlikely to lead as aggressively as Obama on this issue. And she might also be influenced by corporate interests, as a large number of her donors are from the fossil fuel industry. We also have the climate activists favourite, the independent socialist Bernie Sanders, who is doing remarkably well. Many activists will favour his hard left and anti-capitalist views, but he is likely to get the picture wrong on clean energy, not understanding the role of the private sector in funding clean energy.
The climate change and energy crossroads
In less than a year, America stands at a crossroads and will have elected the next US President.  According to Obama’s final SOTU speech, which claims that most Americans now see climate change as a critical issue, the next President will be a Democrat. But it is more complex than that, and it is by no means certain which way the vote will go. Until the election, the international community will have to hold its breath.

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