What Obama’s Climate Legacy Tells Us About Executive Power

Bill Scher

President Barack Obama recently sat with the New York Times to discuss his legacy on climate, and was asked about his failure to enact legislation to cap greenhouse emission. He responded: “Here, in 2016, we’ve actually achieved more carbon emissions [reduction] that we would have under the cap-and-trade bill that … went down in [Congress].”

This is correct, though more context is needed.

The cap-and-trade bill that passed the House but never reached the Senate floor aimed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, from their level in 2005, 3 percent by 2012 and 17 percent in 2020. If those reductions were steady, there would have been a 6.5 percent cut by 2014.

Blocked by Congress, Obama leveraged executive power. For example, vehicle fuel-efficiency standards have been raised. Stricter air pollution rules have contributed to the decline of coal power, which has fallen from about one-half to one-third of America’s power supply. And the Recovery Act allowed the administration to make record investments into renewable energy production.

Thanks in part to those actions, the actual cut in greenhouse gas emissions (according to EPA data) by 2012 was 10 percent, and the actual cut by 2014 (the most recent year data is available) was … 6.9 percent.

So yes, executive actions ended up outpacing the estimates for the ill-fated legislation. But reality doesn’t move in a straight line. Weather and economic growth play a role. Emissions went up in 2013 and (less so) in 2014 because cold winters led to more use of heating fuels, and an improved economy led to increased industrial production and transportation.

We need not assume the trend line will continue to rise, especially once Obama’s Clean Power Plan to cut emissions from power plans is implemented. The massive EPA-led, state-based regulatory effort was put on hold by the Supreme Court before Justice Antonin Scalia died. Without his vote, probability is high that the Clean Power Plan will eventually move forward.

But the hold-up, well, holds things up. And time is precious. Such is the downside of executive action; it’s susceptible to the whims of the judicial branch. Not to mention the electorate. As Obama noted to the New York Times, in understated fashion, “I think it’s fair to say that if Donald Trump is elected, for example, you have a pretty big shift now with how the E.P.A. operates.”

There’s no question Obama was correct to act when Congress would not. But the lesson the draw is not that executive action should be the first tool to take out of the tool kit. Acting with the Congress’ support (and without an obstructionist judiciary) would have meant a sustained strategy from Day One, instead of a piecemeal approach that takes longer to build and lacks the certainty of continued political support.

That’s why it’s important for climate hawks to put their stamp not just on the Oval Office, but on Congress and the Supreme Court. Incremental progress beats no progress. But the climate needs all hands, and all branches of government, on deck.

Get updates in your inbox