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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Will America's Climate Agenda Fall Apart Without Obama?

By Mary Mazzoni

Over the past eight years, U.S. President Barack Obama did more to address climate change than any previous administration. The 44th president updated fuel-efficiency standards for the first time in three decades, invested an unprecedented $90 billion in renewable energy development, created the country's first carbon standards for power plants, and signed the Paris Agreement to finally bring America to the right side of global climate negotiations.

"Anybody who followed what this president has done — not only from day one but through today — recognizes that no single president has made such a large contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions both at home and around the world," said Heather Zichal, former deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change. "In previous years, [the U.S.] hasn’t even shown up to climate talks. Now, we’re leading the talks."

On Tuesday at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Zichal joined two current members of the Obama administration to discuss questions at the top of everyone's minds: What will happen to America's climate agenda when Obama steps down? How will a Hillary Clinton administration further the country's work on climate action? And how much could a Donald Trump administration derail the progress we've made?

"As we are thinking about passing the baton from an Obama administration to a Clinton administration, there’s tremendous opportunity," said Zichal, who joined the Obama camp during the 2008 campaign and now works as a private consultant. "Chief among those is the implementation of the Clean Power Plan. [The Obama administration] figured out what that policy should look like, and the second phase is to work directly with the states and figure out what their implementation plans are going to be."

Also on deck early in the next presidency is the mid-term review of fuel-efficiency standards for light-duty vehicles, as well as a final decision regarding coal leasing on federal land -- a practice Obama temporarily suspended in January, Zichal said. "That alone is an exciting agenda for an incoming president."

But Zichal was quick to note GOP candidate Donald Trump's purported opposition to such policies, referencing his promises to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and roll back all environmental regulations passed under Obama. And while 3p has previously reported that Trump's professed plan to "renegotiate" the Paris climate agreement is not logistically feasible, the New York businessman could significantly impact what's happening on the climate front here at home, Zichal warned.

"Because this president was not able to work with Congress … much of what he has done is through existing regulatory authorities," she explained. "And the important thing to remember when you go to the polls in November is that all of those things, because they were done with regulatory authority, can easily be unwound — fuel economy standards, the Clean Power Plan, all of that is very much at risk in this election if it doesn’t go right."

Okay, that's coming from a woman who once served within the Obama administration. But we live in a country where everyone deserves representation, and a good half of the country opposes Obama's climate agenda, right? Not exactly, said Rohan Patel, special assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and senior White House advisor for climate and energy policy.

Patel pointed to ongoing surveys the administration conducted about the Clean Power Plan. They used several terms to refer to the plan, and both included and omitted Obama's name. They were surprised to see that the results were remarkably consistent -- and much more favorable than anticipated.

"In Florida, 68 percent of people want to see the Clean Power Plan move forward. In Michigan, in Colorado, [we saw the] same general percentages," Patel said on Tuesday. "Even if they don’t believe climate change is human caused, and even if they don’t believe in the science, there are so many things that we can do to tackle this in common cause. That’s what we're seeing in places like Texas, in places like Ohio. Iowa has more than 40 percent of their energy coming from wind."

Dan Utech, who occupies Zichal's former position in the administration, agreed that Americans have reached a much more clear consensus on clean energy and climate action than many realize. "If you look at the surveys, a majority of Americans believe climate change is a problem. They believe in the solutions set forth, and they want more of it."

With the heated back-and-forth that has so characterized the country for the better part of a decade, it's tough to believe we're in such agreement on these issues. But the administration's findings echo a survey conducted earlier this year by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. In the survey, 56 percent of self-proclaimed Trump voters said they believe climate change is happening. These numbers were far higher for supporters of other candidates (Bernie Sanders: 93 percent, Hillary Clinton: 92 percent, and John Kasich: 71 percent). But the findings indicate we're in much closer agreement than politicians and the media would have us believe.

It's also worth noting that the Republican party's purported opposition to climate action is a relatively new phenomenon. "In 2008, the Republican presidential platform acknowledged that climate change was a problem, acknowledged it was manmade, and that we should take action," Zichal noted. "John McCain was running for president, and he had proposed a bipartisan bill to put forward cap and trade." Good luck finding any reference to these facts in the news today -- an unfortunate reality Zichal insisted must change.

"In this very divided country, we have to find new opportunities to create political space and bring Republicans back to the table," Zichal continued. "The Republican party has been in the right place on this issue. We just need to find a way to create some space to bring them back.

"Opportunities around the renewable agenda is perfect. I think you talk about climate preparedness. Let's just blast past whether climate change is a problem and talk about how we’re going to build better, smarter, safer communities."

After famously calling half of her opponent's supporters a "basket of deplorables," is a President Clinton prepared to bridge this divide and bring America's climate action plan to the next level? And if he were elected, would a President Trump warm up to the obvious benefits of the clean-energy economy and change his tune? Only time will tell. But the experts seemed optimistic about the future energy and climate landscape in the U.S. -- even beyond the Oval Office.

"There are huge economic benefits and net-pluses … to all of the steps this administration has taken to transition to a clean-energy economy," Zichal said. "But what’s so exciting to me is that there are technologies out there that we haven’t even dreamt of … As much as I see opportunity with existing technology, I think there’s huge opportunity around innovation and in all of the investments that are being made in the clean-tech sector."

Image credits: 1) Flickr/DonkeyHotey 2) Courtesy of the author

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni