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The Unprecedented Presidency: Climate Change

If you ask most people to explain the science behind climate change, they are unable to do so. This doesn't prevent many people from having strong opinions on the subject, and it is an issue which has become politicized in recent times, especially after former Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore championed the issue in the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" in 2006. Those who forecast dire consequences if the issue is not properly addressed rely on global records of surface temperature (kept since the mid-late 19th century), data from ice cores, records of sea level change, arctic sea ice decline, cloud cover, measurement of solar radiation received by the Earth, and other geological data. Supporters for action on climate change identify a number of human activities as contributing to climate change, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists had interpreted past and current date and rely on theoretical models to predict the future effects of climate change. This includes geological evidence from borehole temperature profiles (cores removed from deep accumulations of ice) and records of past sea levels.

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The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty on climate change that commits its signature nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a timetable set out in the agreement. It was adopted in Kyoto, Japan on December 11, 1997 and entered came into force on February 16, 2005. The United States was a signatory to the agreement, but the treaty has never been ratified in the United States.

As a Republican presidential candidate in 2000, George W. Bush pledged to work towards reduced greenhouse gas emissions. In a speech on September 29, 2000, Bush pledged to commit two billion dollars to the funding of clean coal technology research and in that same speech, he also promised to work with Congress, environmental groups, and the energy industry to reduce the emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, and carbon dioxide into the environment. He later reversed his position on that pledge in March 2001, stating that carbon dioxide was not considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. He was concerned that restricting carbon dioxide emissions would cause energy prices to increase significantly.

In March 2001, the Bush administration announced that it would not implement the Kyoto Protocol. Bush took the position that that ratifying the treaty would restrict U.S. growth while unsuccessfully limiting emissions from developing nations. In February 2002, President Bush announced his alternative to the Kyoto Protocol, by bringing forth a plan to reduce the intensity of greenhouse gases by 18% over 10 years. Under this plan, emissions would continued to grow, but at a slower pace. Bush stated that this plan would prevent the release of 500 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, which is about the equivalent of removing 70 million cars on the road. He proposed to achieve this target by providing tax credits to businesses that use renewable energy sources.

President Bush stated that he believed global warming to be a genuine concern and a serious problem, but he conceded that there existed a "debate over whether it's man-made or naturally caused".

In contrast, President Barack Obama called global warming the greatest long-term threat facing the world. In spite of this, he was unable to bring about passage of a major bill addressing the issue, in part because many Republicans and even some Democrats questioned the science behind global warming and whether human activity was a significant contributing factor to its occurrence. Following his inauguration, President Obama asked Congress to pass a bill to put a cap on domestic carbon emissions. After the House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act in 2009, Obama tried to convince the Senate to pass the bill as well. The legislation would have required the US to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 and by 83 percent by the middle of the 21st century. The bill was strongly opposed by Republicans. It failed to be brought for a vote in the Senate and neither did a separate proposed bipartisan compromise bill.

In 2013, President Obama announced that he would bypass Congress by ordering the EPA to implement new carbon emissions limits. His "Clean Power Plan" was announced in 2015. It sought to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025. He also imposed regulations on soot, sulfur, and mercury that encouraged a transition from coal as an energy source. This, along with the falling price of wind, solar, and natural gas energy sources led to a decline in the use of coal energy. President Obama encouraged this successful transition away from coal in large part due to the fact that coal emits more carbon than other sources of power, including natural gas.

Obama's campaign to fight global warming was more popular at the international level than in Congress. Obama attended the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which drafted the non-binding Copenhagen Accord as a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. That accord provided for the monitoring of carbon emissions among developing countries, but did not include Obama's proposal for nations to commit to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050.

In 2014, President Obama reached an agreement with China in which China pledged to reach peak carbon emission levels by 2030, while the US pledged to cut its emissions by 26-28 percent compared to its 2005 levels. Many believed that the deal might lead to a potential multilateral global warming agreement among the world's largest carbon emitting nations. At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, nearly every country in the world agreed to a landmark climate deal in which each nation committed lowering their greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris Agreement created a universal accounting system for emissions. It required each signatory country to monitor its emissions, and required each country to create a plan to reduce its emissions.

President Obama also took several measures to raise vehicle fuel efficiency in the United States. In 2009, he announced plans to increase the Corporate Average Fuel Economy to 35 miles per gallon. In 2012, he set even higher standards, mandating an average fuel efficiency of 54.5 mpg. Obama also signed the "cash-for-clunkers" bill, which provided incentives to consumers to trade in older, less fuel-efficient cars for more efficient cars. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $54 billion in funds to encourage domestic renewable energy production, make federal buildings more energy-efficient, improve the electricity grid, and repair public housing. He promoted the use of plug-in electric vehicles, and 400,000 electric cars had been sold by the end of 2015. The measures appeared to have some success. A recent report by The American Lung Association concludes there was a “major improvement” in air quality by the end of President Obama's administration.

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In contrast, President Donald Trump does not share President Obama's beliefs on the significance of the problem of climate chance. He has repeatedly called scientific consensus on climate a "hoax". By May of this year, his administration overturned or was in process of overturning 98 environmental regulations. His appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environment Protection Agency was a controversial one, opposed by many environmental groups. Pruitt resigned in July of 2018 following a number of allegations of ethical violations. Pruitt was criticized for his pro-business attitude. The Washington Post said of Pruitt's leadership of the EPA, "In legal maneuvers and executive actions, in public speeches and closed-door meetings with industry groups, he has moved to shrink the agency's reach, alter its focus, and pause or reverse numerous environmental rules. The effect has been to steer the EPA in the direction sought by those being regulated. Along the way, Pruitt has begun to dismantle former president Barack Obama's environmental legacy, halting the agency's efforts to combat climate change and to shift the nation away from its reliance on fossil fuels."

In December 2017, the New York Times accused the Trump administration of adopting a far more lenient approach to enforcing federal pollution laws than the Obama and Bush administrations. The Trump administration has brought fewer prosecutions of polluters, and made fewer requests of companies to retrofit facilities to curb pollution. The Times attributes this to directions from Pruitt based on lobbying from oil and gas industry executives.

Moments after President Trump's inauguration, the White House website removed all references to climate change, other than to mentioning President Trump's intention to eliminate the Obama administration's climate change policies. By April, the EPA had removed climate change material on its website, including climate data and scientific information. The administration instituted a temporary media blackout for the EPA, but by late February 2017, the media blackout was partially lifted. The EPA hired a research firm to investigate EPA employees who had expressed criticism of the management of the EPA under Pruitt's tenure. A leaked March 2018 memo directs EPA employees to use climate change denial talking points in official communications about climate change. Last month, in October 2018, the EPA disbanded a 20-expert panel on pollution which advised the EPA on the appropriate threshold levels to set for air quality standards.

President Trump has issued an executive order reversing a number of Obama administration policies on climate change. President Trump has said that he is "putting an end to the war on coal", justifying this and other moves in order to create jobs in the industry. He ended the moratorium on federal coal leasing, and revoked several of President Obama's executive orders including the Presidential Climate Action Plan. He also ordered reviews of a number of Obama initiatives such as the Clean Power Plan, the estimate for the "social cost of carbon" emissions, carbon dioxide emission standards for new coal plants, methane emissions standards from oil and natural gas extraction, as well as any regulations inhibiting domestic energy production.

In June 2017, President Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement that President Obama had joined in on in 2015. The administration also suspended a number of large research programs on climate change issues. It has also been critical of NASA's climate science program. It has modified regulations requiring the federal government to account for climate change and sea-level rise when building infrastructure.

The administration has enacted 30% tariffs on solar panels. The American solar energy industry is highly reliant on foreign parts and as a result, the tariffs will raise the costs of solar energy. In 2017 the solar energy industry had employed nearly four times as many American workers as the coal industry.

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The debate on climate change is not so much one of whether or not the climate is changing. This has been the case throughout the history of the world, once subject to an Ice Age. The debate is about whether or not the changes will be as rapid as many predict and whether or not they justify the significant economic consequences that many are calling for. The previous administration considered the issue to be a priority, accepting that addressing the property would bring with it an economic consequence. For the current administration, the more immediate priority is the job creation and recovering from the adverse affects on the average American's income as a consequence of globalization, free trade, the economic damage caused by the pandemic, and the climate change strategies adopted by past administrations.
Tags: al gore, barack obama, donald trump, george w. bush
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