In a famous work of literary criticism, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between writers who know one big thing (the hedgehogs) and those who know a great many little things (the foxes); he described Tolstoy as a fox who really wanted to be a hedgehog. If the late Berlin could take to the Sunday talk shows to discuss climate change, he might similarly describe President Obama as somebody who would prefer to do one big thing but, if he can't, will be reasonably content to do a great many small things.
Back in January In his State of the Union address, Obama said that if he could not get Congress to enact a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon pollution—a system that would "set a price on carbon" and establish a level playing field for all comers with innovative clean technologies—then he would use his executive authority to do everything in his power to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In his speech earlier this week outlining the newly formulated U.S. Climate Action Plan, Obama did just that.
Arguably, the most important thing about Obama's climate speech was simply that he gave it, and that he delivered it in top form, sweating all the way through it in the midday sun. But the contents of the speech also were important and deserve to be summarized in some technical detail.
- Under the heading of cutting carbon pollution, Obama's announcement of regulations for new and existing coal-fired plants was expected—it was indeed the main thing expected—but the way he pitched the decision to his audience and to Americans broadly was still notable: "Today, about 40 percent of America's carbon pollution comes from our power plants. But here's the thing: Right now, there are no Federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can pump into our air. None. Zero.…So today, for the sake of our children, and the health and safety of all Americans, I'm directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants.…"
Also notable is the climate plan's rather prominent mention of methane, which accounts for 9 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The plan says U.S. methane emissions have decreased 8 percent since 1990, and that to achieve further reductions, the administration will encourage wider use of methane digesters in the livestock sector, upgraded natural gas pipelines to prevent leakage, and reduced flaring at natural gas wellheads.
Obama squarely embraced rising U.S. production of oil and natural gas (as well as nuclear energy) but strongly hinted that the controversial Keystone pipeline may be blocked: Allowing it would require a finding that it is in the national interest he said, and "our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."
- Under the headings of green and clean tech, the President's goal is to issue permits for 10 gigawatts of renewables on publicly owned lands by the end of this year and another 10 GW by 2020; to have the Defense Department deploy another 10 GW of renewables; and make up to US $8 billion in Federal loan guarantees available for "a wide array of advanced fossil energy projects" aiming at "avoidance, reduction or sequestration of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases," as the action plan puts it.
- Under energy efficiency and standards, Obama boasted of the very stiff fuel efficiency requirements already set for light vehicles, said similar standards would now be developed for heavy vehicles, and said that evolving standards for appliances and Federal buildings would ultimately produce carbon savings equivalent to what the whole energy sector currently produces in a half year.
- With respect to grid modernization, Obama put the emphasis not on resilience as such or on smart technologies but simply on building out transmission. He said he would sign a memo this month directing Federal agencies to streamline authorization of transmission projects. Separately, the plan notes that the Transportation Department is channeling $5.7 billion to the four regional transit agencies most affected by Hurricane Sandy (photo), but no mention is made of hardened electrical infrastructure. (An early smart grid enthusiast, Obama may feel he was burned by extravagant claims made early on.)
- Under the heading of climate impact management, the action plan puts a lot of emphasis on nudging climate science in a practical direction. The 2014 Federal budget allocates $2.7 billion to the study of impacts, catastrophe modeling and development of emergency information and decision tools.
- Last and arguably most importantly, Obama pledged to work toward the adoption of a universally binding climate action treaty that will be ambitious, inclusive and flexible. With respect to the developing countries, exempt from the greenhouse gas reduction requirements of the Kyoto Protocol, Obama said we cannot blame them for aspiring to our level of prosperity. But at the same time, he said, they also need to understand (and presumably be reminded) that they also are by and large the most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change.
Anticipating Obama's speech, pundits wondered whether he would mention diplomacy at all and whether he would see an opportunity in the much improved U.S. performance as a carbon cutter. Obama appears to have got the message and be on-message. Since 2006, he claimed in this week's speech, the United States has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by a larger quantity than any other country in the world. Though that assertion may not hold true in percentage terms, it's strong enough for the U.S. president to reclaim a position of leadership in international climate negotiations, which, he said, is his intention.
Assessing Obama's speech as a whole and the prospects for his climate action plan as a whole, there are those like Stanford law professor Michael Wara who take a skeptical view, comparing the president to students who promise great work but never quite deliver. I beg to differ. Obama seems to me to have formulated a comprehensive plan that he is largely in a position to implement on his own authority, and with that plan in his pocket, he unequivocally stated his intention to enter negotiations to bring the rest of the world along. Perhaps critics like Wara are looking for a single big "hedgehog" move. They would do well to consider more closely the aggregate benefits of the many fine-grained foxy maneuvers we saw announced this week.
Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images