So 2013 is nearly done. On the political scene it’s easy to hope that the door gives the year a good whack on the way out. But as we take a final look back on the environmental front, there’s a lot for which we should be grateful– especially if you take into consideration the things that didn’t get worse.
The Obama administration should be congratulated for the big step it took last summer in its commitment to fight climate change. Following on the heels of the landmark 2012 rule by the Obama administration to require automakers to vastly increase the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks, President Obama announced his commitment to take further action on climate change and avoid, as the President put it, condemning “future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.” A particularly significant feature of the President’s climate action plan is its stated goal to establish carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. If done right, these standards could have an enormously positive impact on public health and would be a momentous victory in the fight to control climate change.
Another important climate item in 2013 was something that didn’t happen. Namely, the Obama administration did not approve TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. While it remains to be seen whether the administration will eventually approve the counterproductive project, the President’s skepticism concerning the benefits of the pipeline and his commitment to evaluate its contribution of carbon to the atmosphere provides hope that the administration will scrap the misbegotten proposal altogether in favor of a cleaner energy future for America.
Also worthy of attention are the many staffing changes made in highly influential energy and environmental positions within the administration. Lisa Jackson left her post as EPA Administrator with an exceptional list of accomplishments, including adoption of air toxics standards that will save thousands of American lives every year. The Obama administration’s decision to replace Jackson with the highly capable Gina McCarthy serves as a sign of the administration’s continued commitment to climate and other crucial environmental protections. A further proof of this continued commitment was demonstrated as the brilliant Dr. Stephen Chu was replaced at the Department of Energy by veteran climate policy leader and energy expert, Dr. Ernest Moniz.
Heather Zichal, former senior energy and climate adviser to the White House, departed too after the President’s unveiled his groundbreaking climate action plan. Zichal helped orchestrate the development of this plan and should also be credited for the critical role she played in securing the vehicle fuel economy standards. Also announcing her departure was Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who can be proud of her accomplishments such as oversight of the creation of the first comprehensive National Ocean Policy.
The biggest item on the arrival side of White House staffing news is the addition of John Podesta, former Chief of Staff to President Clinton and previously a board member of the NRDC Action Fund. Podesta will be serving as senior counsel to president Obama and, considering his work in making climate change one of the top priorities of the think tank he founded after leaving the Clinton Administration, his return to the White House is an exciting prospect for the administration’s increased activity on climate change in the coming year.
Any review of 2013 would be remiss if it failed to discuss Congressional activity, or lack thereof. There was at least a bipartisan budget deal, but otherwise Congress remained largely ineffectual. This meant that progress on the environment was left almost entirely up to action by the executive branch even as the administration fended off persistent attacks by climate deniers in Congress.
Hope persists that an eventual legislative agreement can be reached to update the federal law (the Toxics Substances Control Act, or TSCA) that regulates chemicals used in commercial and consumer products, but negotiations on a bill have stalled over how to set clear standards and deadlines that would actually make the law better than what exists now. Still, a good day in Congress is sometimes defined as doing no harm, and so it was good that bad environmental laws were kept off the President’s desk, and sneak attacks on the environment through unrelated provisions in other bills (termed “riders”) were mostly avoided.
Another topic that warrants discussion is the ongoing internal debate within the national Republican party. Following the party’s defeat in the last Presidential election, the Republican National Committee commissioned an assessment of the root causes of their underperformance. This report emphasized the party’s need to reach out to minorities, to alter their stance and messaging on immigration, and to pay greater attention to generational issues in order to remain relevant and competitive in elections moving forward.
Despite these recommendations, the Republican Party has retained a reputation as ideologically exclusive and controlled by extremists. This fall’s extended government shutdown is a perfect example of the Republicans’ increased isolation from mainstream opinion, as most Americans held an unfavorable view of the shutdown because it hampered the ability of federal agencies like the EPA to do their jobs protecting us.
The party’s unfortunate fate when it’s outside the political mainstream was evident in state races this past fall. In Virginia, the more conservative a Republican candidate for statewide office was, the worse he performed in his election – and Ken Cuccinelli’s views on climate change in particular were used to help define him as an extremist. Alternatively, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie took a more reasonable stance on climate change and other issues, and subsequently won re-election in a landslide in a “blue” state.
So the administration’s commitment to action on climate change and the possibility that more reasonable, bipartisan cooperation will return to Congress in not a bad place to start for 2014. Certainly 2013 set a standard of performance that our leaders should be expected to exceed. Here’s hoping they exceed it by a lot.