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There's a big gap between Obama's climate ambitions and his actual policies

U.S. President Barack Obama wipes sweat off his face as he unveils his plan on climate change June 25, 2013 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Barack Obama wipes sweat off his face as he unveils his plan on climate change June 25, 2013 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Sunday, The New York Times published a long interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman on global warming. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the talk was the huge gulf between Obama's stated ambitions on the issue and current US policies.

In the interview, Obama seems to take global warming very seriously: "There is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that's in the ground right now that the planet's going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire."

But when Obama lays out what actually needs to be done to tackle climate change, it's noteworthy how far the United States is from any of those goals. Here are three places where there's a big gap between what Obama says and what's being done:

1) The 2°C temperature target

Clarification: The Y-axis should be in billion metric tons of C, not CO2.

What Obama said: "I very much believe in keeping that 2° Celsius target as a goal."

What this means: The 2°C limit is a goal that nearly every country in the world has agreed to — the idea is that we shouldn't let global average temperatures rise more than 2°C (or 3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. Go above that, and we risk stepping outside the climatic range under which human civilization developed. (By the way, temperatures have already risen about 0.8°C.)

Why the US is falling short: As part of international climate negotiations, the United States has pledged to cut emissions 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050 (compared with 2005 levels).

Trouble is, it's not clear that this pledge is even compatible with the 2°C goal. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found, if you assume that all the governments around the world will actually make the emissions cuts they've promised, the world is still on track for something like 3°C of warming.

And US success isn't even assured: Obama's current policies, while dramatic and far-reaching, likely aren't enough to meet that pledge. Even with the new EPA carbon rules for power-plants, US emissions are expected to be around 10 percent to 13 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

(Though granted, it's still possible that the Obama administration could push the US closer to its pledge with additional policies, like a proposal to curtail methane leaks from natural-gas infrastructure.)

2) Leaving fossil fuels in the ground

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Oil pumps in California. CPG Grey/Flickr

What Obama said: "We're not going to be able to burn it all."

What this means: If the world wants to limit global warming to below 2°C, then there's only so much more carbon-dioxide humans can load into the atmosphere. By some estimates, we'd have to leave roughly three-fourths of current reserves of oil, gas, and coal underground — unburned. (This would require nations and companies to abandon trillions of dollars in reserves.)

Why the US is falling short: True, the United States has been curbing its carbon-dioxide emissions of late by burning less coal for electricity. But not all of that coal is staying in the ground. A small but growing fraction is getting exported to countries in Europe and Asia — and burned there.* That's one big area to watch: the US Energy Information Administration projects that US coal production could continue to grow in the next 30 years, even as the United States uses less of it for electricity. Exports are one reason.

Granted, that's just a complicated way of saying that global warming is a global problem. It's not enough for the United States to burn less coal. So long as coal demand in China, India, and elsewhere keeps growing, it's unlikely that America's coal will stay in the ground. (Some environmentalists have focused on trying to block coal exports, with some success, although it's a difficult task.)

3) Putting a price on carbon

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The Department of Water and Power (DWP) San Fernando Valley Generating Station is seen on January 7, 2010 in Sun Valley, California. David McNew/Getty Images

What Obama said: "If there is one thing I would like to see, it'd be for us to be able to price the cost of carbon emissions."

What this means: Many economists argue that putting a price on carbon is the most efficient way to tackle global warming. Just figure out how much damage climate change is likely to cause — and then force anyone who wants to burn oil, natural gas, or coal to internalize those costs by paying extra. That price also gives people incentives to switch to cleaner alternatives.

Why the US is falling short: This would likely require Congress — and Congress isn't particularly inclined to pass any legislation on climate change right now.

Back in 2010, Democrats in Congress tried to pass a somewhat complex form of carbon pricing back known as "cap-and-trade." That bill died in the Senate in 2010 (and some environmentalists blamed Obama for not pushing hard enough).

Granted, a few carbon cap-and-trade schemes have persisted in the US — California has its own system, as do power plants in nine states in the Northeast (known as RGGI). What's more, under the EPA's new power plant rule, other states are free to build or join cap-and-trade systems to comply with the rules. But a nationwide carbon-pricing scheme, which would require Congress, currently looks less likely than it did in 2010. (A few conservatives have pitched a program to cut other taxes and replace them with a carbon tax, but momentum is stalled for now.)

So why does the US keep falling short?

Obama pretty clearly doesn't have the power to fix global warming all by himself. Yes, the administration has taken a number of big steps to nudge down US emissions — including stricter fuel-economy rules and curbs on carbon-dioxide from power plants.

But deeper US cuts would presumably require congressional legislation (not to mention faster deployment of clean energy and serious technological advances). And staying below the 2°C limit would require nearly every other country in the world to make major changes to their energy systems. That's something the United States has only limited control over.

Still, the gap between ambition and reality is real and worth underlining. In his interview, Obama offered some reasons for why the politics of climate policy were so tough: "I don't always lead with the climate change issue because if you right now are worried about whether you got a job or if you can pay the bills, the first thing you want to hear is how do I meet the immediate problem? One of the hardest things in politics is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long-term or the price of inaction is decades away."

You can find more along those lines in this piece by Ezra Klein on why the US political system is poorly suited to dealing with a long-range issue like global warming.

* Update: The Breakthrough Institute has some numbers putting coal exports into perspective — US coal production has dropped significantly since 2008. About 5 percent of that coal has been exported over that time. So it's not nearly enough to offset the production decline. At the same time, exports have been rising of late.