Speaking last week in Washington DC, US President Barack Obama reminded voters of the plan they had effectively endorsed by re-electing him. One of his key objectives, Obama said, would be to ensure that the United States “is a global leader in research and technology and clean energy, which will attract new companies and high-wage jobs to America”.
A different objective will be in the spotlight this week when Obama visits New York, a city still recovering from the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy on October 29th. Climate change could make storms like Sandy more common in the future. And New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, cited climate concerns when he endorsed Obama for re-election (see Nature 491, 167–168; 2012), saying that the president has “taken major steps to reduce our carbon consumption, including setting higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks”. When he accepted that endorsement, Obama acknowledged that “climate change is a threat to our children’s future, and we owe it to them to do something about it”.
Yet this new opportunity to confront climate change and invest in science and technology comes with towering obstacles. The election did not end the polarization of Congress — Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives, and the Democrats only slightly strengthened their narrow majority in the Senate. And the ‘fiscal cliff’ looms large — automatic tax increases and spending cuts, the legacy of earlier budget battles, will hit on January 2nd unless the outgoing Congress finds a way to avert them in the session that begins this week (see Nature 487, 414–415; 2012).
The cuts, totaling some $136 billion, would apply to all discretionary spending next year, including defense, and would eat deeply into federal science budgets (see ‘At the precipice’). Congressional leaders expect Obama to play an active part in brokering a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff, which economists say could plunge the fragile US economy back into recession. The outcome will foreshadow Obama’s prospects for achieving other objectives — including those relevant to science — during his second term.
Obama may have to develop his climate plans without some high-profile lieutenants. Energy secretary Steven Chu and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson are both rumored to be stepping down. During Obama’s first term, both became lightning rods for Republican attacks — Chu for his role in approving a $535-million government loan guarantee to Solyndra, a solar-energy company that later went bankrupt, and Jackson for implementing greenhouse-gas regulations. But even without Chu or Jackson, the administration’s approach to renewable energy and global warming would change very little, says Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University in New York. “I suspect we would have continuity in the broad policy approaches.”
Obama’s election victory, combined with growing alarm in the United States over severe weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy and the severe drought in the Midwest this summer, could bolster efforts to curb carbon emissions. Jackson laid the foundation for such reductions after the US Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, which allowed the EPA to regulate the gas under the Clean Air Act. Jackson went on to craft the first US greenhouse-gas regulations for vehicles, and in March proposed a rule that would effectively ban the construction of new coal-fired power plants unless they are equipped to capture and sequester roughly 50% of the carbon dioxide they emit. The agency next plans to propose rules for existing power plants, then oil refineries. The details of those rules are unclear. The EPA could, for example, set energy-efficiency standards for different types of power plant or take a more flexible approach that would let states — which normally implement air-quality rules — decide how to proceed.