The message to businesses is clear - the President wants you to invest in clean tech and is keen to support you if you do
Trailing a big set-piece political speech is always a high risk strategy. You allow your opponents to get their attacks in before you have even taken the podium, you set expectations so high that even your supporters may be left disappointed, and you dilute the impact of what you are announcing by inviting the media to second guess your intentions.
And yet, regardless of what we think we already know about the national climate change plan President Obama will announce later today at a speech at Georgetown University, this event still matters - it matters enormously.
The Obama administration has been trailing this speech since January's inauguration, when the President vowed that he would "respond to the threat of climate change". Although, it could also be argued the White House has been building up to this speech since last summer, when the Obama campaign clearly decided there was nothing to fear from attacking the various Republican Presidential no-hopers for their reckless climate denialism. Since then there has been a steady ratcheting up of climate change rhetoric from the White House, which has approached its peak in recent days with the US inking a new agreement on HFCs with China, the President telling an audience in Berlin that he would "do more" to tackle climate change, senior officials briefing on some of the key detail the new national plan will contain, and the White House releasing what amounts to a rather bizarre video advert inviting people to watch today's Georgetown speech.
Consequently, we know that Obama will announce "a national plan to reduce carbon pollution, prepare our country for the impacts of climate change, and lead global efforts to fight it". We know that he will argue that there is an economic, an ethical, and even a religious rationale for harnessing America's "unique strengths" in science, engineering and business to protect "God's creation" from a climate threat that poses a grave risk to future generations. We know from White House officials that the new plan will feature long-awaited emissions rules for power plants, a renewed push to improve US energy efficiency, efforts to open up more federal land for renewable energy development, and a strategy for enhancing climate resilience. And we know what the Republican leadership thinks of the new strategy, having not concerned themselves with listening to the speech before labelling it "absolutely crazy".
But even if the speech contains absolutely no policy surprises, the implications for businesses both in the US and further afield remain hugely significant.
First and foremost there are those anticipated policy implications. Republican opposition to pretty much any and all environmental regulation may make climate change legislation impossible for the Obama administration, but that does not make the President powerless. The Clean Air Act gives him the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, just as the Oval Office gives him the executive powers needed to deliver significant new green policies for Federal departments and lands. If, as expected, today marks the moment at which he opts to fully exercise those powers then the impact on the green economy will be significant.
Anyone looking for a precedent would be advised to look at the impact of the vehicle efficiency rules the Obama administration delivered during the President's first term, which coupled with similar standards in the EU and China have helped to rapidly accelerate the development of green vehicles. It is easy to imagine how a co-ordinated national climate plan based on tightening emissions standards for power plants, efficiency standards for appliances, and renewed support for renewable energy on federal lands could have a similar impact on a raft of clean tech sectors. Add in the fact that the US is already home to several of the world's leading clean tech hubs and multinationals from Microsoft to Walmart who are firmly committed to decarbonisation and there are plenty of businesses well positioned to benefit from the new strategy. Once you step back from the minutiae of the policy detail this new strategy is essentially a message to corporate America that informs executives that they should be investing in these technologies, and if they do they can count on the President's support.
Then there are the domestic political implications. The new strategy is bound to pour petrol on the flames of Republican anger over environmental legislation. Obama will be accused once again of Presidential over-reach, of unconstitutional behaviour, and of deliberately driving up energy costs to combat a climate problem that does not exist anyway. The White House knows precisely what is coming its way, but the crucial difference between this and other attempts to pass US climate legislation is that this time it is confident it can win.
There is a vanishingly slim chance that a Republican party that still does not seem to realise that it lost the last election badly, will convince the American public that Obama's climate change obsession is a costly liberal plot. But the White House has clearly looked closely at the polling and concluded the public is broadly on its side with this one. Obama may not have made climate change central to his election campaign, but nor did he back away from it - he won comfortably and now has the mandate he needs to deliver on his agenda. More detailed surveys show that despite significant levels of climate scepticism, particularly in the media, a majority of the US public accept mankind is playing a role in driving climate change and an even larger majority are increasingly concerned about extreme weather impacts, not to mention energy imports. Obama knows he can construct a solid case for action that commands broad public support, just as he knows the GOP's anti-science stance on environmental issues is one of the key components of the "angry old white guy" persona that will make it increasingly difficult for it to retake the White House any time soon.
Businesses, with the exception of the unreconstructed elements of the fossil fuel industry, know all this too, which means that despite the partisan log jam in Congress they can mobilise investment in clean tech with a growing confidence that Obama's new strategy will stick even once he has left the West Wing.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are the international implications. It is worth stating at this point that Obama's climate intervention is no panacea. He could still undermine much of his good work by approving the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, his support for the domestic shale gas, oil and coal industry means he is a long way from accepting the urgent need to start leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and the US position at international climate change negotiations remains an odd mix of constructive engagement and resolute obstructionism.
But even when all that is taken account the public commitment of the Leader of the Free World to the fight against climate change will deliver a substantial boost to the global green economy. Obama's speech promises to give politicians around the world the freedom to follow suit - if the POTUS "gets it", others can too. Advocates of green action in Brussels and Westminster can now point out to critics that they are not acting alone in their pursuit of a greener economy, they are acting in concert with the US. Meanwhile, John Kerry is working overtime at the State Department to build alliances that can deliver even more ambitious action on climate change, most notably with China, which seems to be increasingly willing to work with the US on this topic. None of these alliances goes far enough as yet, and there are legitimate fears the US is simply trying to lay the groundwork for a new global agreement that is based more on loose voluntary commitments to curb emissions rather than binding and ambitious international mechanisms. But at the same time the chances of a meaningful climate treaty being agreed in Paris in 2015 are significantly enhanced by the intervention Obama is about to deliver.
Green businesses and campaigners may well end up mildly disappointed by the detail of Obama's climate strategy, but the signal to green businesses the world over is clear. The leader of the world's most influential superpower and largest market wants to build a green economy - savvy businesses will want to work with him.
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