Last Friday, the White House announced an overall 28% target for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by the Federal Government. While the target is a positive step, the wording of the announcement is striking: the terms “global warming’ and ‘climate change’ do not appear once. Clearly the Administration is aiming to placate global warming deniers and move forward with measures that will nevertheless help to mitigate the effects of climate change. Can this new framing backfire?
While these greenhouse gas goals apply to Federal government agencies only, they are important because it sets an example and because the federal government uses a huge amount of energy, occupying nearly 500,000 buildings and operating more than 600,000 vehicles. “As the largest energy consumer in the U.S., we have a responsibility to American citizens to reduce our energy use and become more efficient,” said President Obama. “Our goal is to lower costs, reduce pollution, and shift Federal energy expenses away from oil and towards local, clean energy.”
The announcement emphasizes that the cuts will result in cost savings as well as “fostering innovation and entrepreneurship in clean energy industries.” A separate Department of Defense announcement pledges a 34% reduction by 2020 from non-combat-related activities. The DOD’s announcement makes note of the security risks of overdependence on fossil fuels, but also does not mention climate change.
While the White House release gives the target reduction as 28%, it does not give a baseline year; the Guardian reports that the 28% reduction is from 2008 emission levels. Also yesterday, the U.S. submitted its pledge to the UN to reduce the nation’s overall greenhouse gas emissions by 17% of 2005 levels by 2020. (Today, Canada also committed to a 17% reduction.) While the actual percentage reduction needed to prevent the more catastrophic effects from climate change is still being debated, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 said developed countries need to attain a 20 to 40% reduction from 1990 levels by 2020 in order to limit the global temperature increase to two degrees Celsius. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased by 16% between 1990 and 2004, according to the EPA.
The Federal target announcement is a result of Executive Order 13514 signed by the President last October, which sets sustainability goals for Federal agencies. The Order requires all agencies to “measure, manage, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions toward agency-defined targets” and “make improvements in their environmental, energy and economic performance.” Individual federal agencies reported their 2020 target reductions to the White House this month, from which the 28% proposed overall cut emerged.
By not mentioning the importance of the concept and crisis that is global warming, is Obama being practical or cowardly? There are many benefits to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but is there a long-term disadvantage to ignoring the overarching issue of climate change and the U.S.’s disproportionate contribution to emissions caused by human activity? The President is under a lot of pressure from all sides, and, as with health care reform, he seems to be taking an incremental approach to progress. Perhaps that is all that we can hope for–at least for now. But those of us who know that climate change is real and urgent will keep our eyes on the White House for any signs of a retreat from leadership in this arena.
Photo: Steve Rhodes via Flickr, CC license
The San Francisco Federal Building, operated by the GSA, was designed for energy efficiency.