Obama and Trudeau Embrace on Climate: Six Takeaways

New initiatives with Canada show that the White House is pushing hard on climate change as Obama’s term winds down, but a lot depends on November.

President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shake hands following the conclusion of their joint news conference in the Rose Garden on Thursday.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
March 10, 2016, 1:54 p.m.

Thursday morn­ing brought a burst of cli­mate-policy pledges from the U.S. and Canada that co­in­cide with new Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s state vis­it.

The two coun­tries are vow­ing new co­oper­a­tion on pro­tect­ing the Arc­tic, cut­ting pol­lu­tion from oil-and-gas pro­duc­tion, help­ing de­vel­op­ing na­tions com­ply with the Par­is cli­mate deal, and more. At the same time, a newly pub­lished in­ter­view with Pres­id­ent Obama in The At­lantic makes clear why Obama is de­vot­ing so much at­ten­tion to cli­mate change as his pres­id­ency winds down.

Here are a few takeaways from Obama’s latest fourth-quarter play on glob­al warm­ing:

Elec­tions have con­sequences, Part 1. The biggest do­mest­ic news in the U.S.-Canada pledges is that the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency plans to reg­u­late emis­sions of meth­ane, a highly po­tent green­house gas, from ex­ist­ing oil and nat­ur­al-gas pro­jects and in­fra­struc­ture. That’s a big ex­pan­sion of EPA’s on­go­ing de­vel­op­ment of meth­ane stand­ards for new and mod­i­fied wells, pumps, com­pressors, and oth­er in­fra­struc­ture. But here’s the catch: It’s un­likely that EPA could fin­ish writ­ing the rules for these ex­ist­ing sources by the time Obama leaves of­fice. That high­lights the en­vir­on­ment­al and en­ergy policy stakes of Novem­ber’s elec­tions. Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates are vow­ing to scale back EPA’s cli­mate ef­forts (though en­ergy and cli­mate haven’t been big is­sues in the GOP race). In con­trast, Demo­crat­ic front-run­ner Hil­lary Clin­ton—who has been mov­ing left on oil-and-gas reg­u­la­tion—and Bernie Sanders fa­vor tough con­trols.

Elec­tions have con­sequences, Part 2. Joint U.S.-Canada work on en­ergy and cli­mate isn’t it­self new; the na­tions have pre­vi­ously col­lab­or­ated on cut­ting vehicle emis­sions and more. But the bi­lat­er­al cli­mate ef­fort is now on a high­er level. Why? Pre­vi­ously, the years-long U.S. re­fus­al to green­light the Key­stone pipeline, a huge pri­or­ity for the oil-friendly former PM Steph­en Harp­er of the Con­ser­vat­ive Party, was a gi­ant point of con­ten­tion. Harp­er’s ouster last fall that brought the Lib­er­al Trudeau to power has greatly boos­ted the Ca­na­dian gov­ern­ment’s fo­cus on cli­mate change, and paved the way for the more am­bi­tious col­lab­or­a­tion an­nounced Thursday. Harp­er “made Key­stone XL his top cross-bor­der en­ergy pri­or­ity, and he let dis­agree­ment over that pipeline sour his re­la­tion­ship with Pres­id­ent Obama,” notes Mer­ran Smith, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the think tank Clean En­ergy Canada. “By com­par­is­on, the Trudeau gov­ern­ment has made it clear that cli­mate change is a top pri­or­ity, and in this Canada has found a strong ally and sup­port­ive coun­ter­part in Pres­id­ent Obama.” 

Tar­get: oil. The EPA meth­ane an­nounce­ment—which drew im­me­di­ate push­back from in­dustry lob­by­ists—is the latest sign that Obama is tak­ing an in­creas­ingly tough stance with the oil-and-gas sec­tor as his pres­id­ency winds down. Last fall, he pulled the plug on Arc­tic Ocean oil-and-gas lease sales slated for 2016 and 2017. An­oth­er shoe could drop some time in the com­ing weeks. That’s when the In­teri­or De­part­ment un­veils the next draft of its 2017-2022 plan for selling off­shore oil-and-gas drilling leases. An ini­tial ver­sion last year in­cluded the planned sale of At­lantic Ocean drilling rights off the coasts of sev­er­al Mid- and South-At­lantic states, as well as Arc­tic Ocean lease sales. But Obama is un­der pres­sure from en­vir­on­ment­al­ists to cut those sec­tions when the plan is ul­ti­mately fi­nal­ized.

Lame-duck Obama really has cli­mate change on his mind. These latest ac­tions are the work of a pres­id­ent who is ex­press­ing deep con­cerns about the risks of glob­al warm­ing as he seeks a leg­acy on the is­sue. That’s ap­par­ent in his new in­ter­view in The At­lantic. “As I sur­vey the next 20 years, cli­mate change wor­ries me pro­foundly be­cause of the ef­fects that it has on all the oth­er prob­lems that we face,” he said. “If you start see­ing more severe drought; more sig­ni­fic­ant fam­ine; more dis­place­ment from the In­di­an sub­con­tin­ent and coastal re­gions in Africa and Asia; the con­tinu­ing prob­lems of scarcity, refugees, poverty, dis­ease—this makes every oth­er prob­lem we’ve got worse. That’s above and bey­ond just the ex­ist­en­tial is­sues of a plan­et that starts get­ting in­to a bad feed­back loop.”

The Wild North shouldn’t be the Wild West. The Obama-Trudeau plans are the latest ef­forts to en­sure that the Arc­tic, with its melt­ing ice and huge re­sources, has safe­guards and rules in place as na­tions in­creas­ingly eye com­mer­cial activ­it­ies there. Vari­ous Arc­tic-pro­tec­tion plans in­clude a pledge to work on “low im­pact ship­ping cor­ridors,” and more broadly, the two coun­tries vow to craft a “shared and sci­ence-based stand­ard” for weigh­ing the im­pact of com­mer­cial activ­it­ies in the re­gion.

Breath­ing life in­to Par­is. The sweep­ing glob­al cli­mate deal reached in Decem­ber is am­bi­tious, but it also rests largely on the vol­un­tary do­mest­ic pledges (called “In­ten­ded Na­tion­ally De­term­ined Con­tri­bu­tions,” or IN­DCs) of coun­tries world­wide. The new U.S.-Canada bi­lat­er­al ef­forts an­nounced Thursday show that Obama and his coun­ter­part are try­ing to en­sure the Par­is cli­mate agree­ment ac­tu­ally takes flight. Sev­er­al pro­vi­sions ad­dress Par­is, like this one: “Canada and the U.S. will work with de­vel­op­ing coun­try part­ners to as­sist in im­ple­ment­a­tion of their IN­DCs and strength­en­ing their ad­apt­a­tion ef­forts.” The White House, of course, has its own cli­mate troubles at home now that the Su­preme Court has frozen Obama’s sweep­ing car­bon-emis­sions rules for power plants. That’s a big prob­lem, in part be­cause the rules are among the policies un­der­ly­ing the White House pledge in Par­is to cut U.S. green­house-gas emis­sions by 26-28 per­cent be­low 2005 levels by 2025. But the newly an­nounced meth­ane rules are part of a wider White House ef­fort to show that it’s em­ploy­ing a wide ar­ray of policies to keep its Par­is prom­ises.

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