On November 7, 2012, we learned that the United States had spent in excess of $6 billion on a national election that essentially preserved the status quo—President Obama, a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and a Democrat-controlled Senate—with one potentially significant difference: Knowing that he will never again need to campaign for votes in a "swing state," President Obama may feel more free in his second term to address the politically challenging issue of climate change.
With opinion polls showing that the economy in general and jobs in particular were the dominant concern of voters, neither candidate devoted much attention during the campaign to climate change or other environmental issues.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency largely suspended formal action on potentially controversial regulations during the campaign season, most notably deferring from 2012 to 2013 its planned tightening of the national air standard for "smog" and delaying the finalization of greenhouse gas emission standards for new electric utility plants.
Just before Election Day, "Superstorm" Sandy indirectly brought the issue of climate change back into the discussion as media reports sought to assess whether the storm's destructive winds and flooding could be partially attributed to climate change. While it's possible that Sandy will provide the catalyst for greater public support for governmental efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, that's far from certain. Politically, the areas most significantly affected by Sandy are largely represented in Congress by Democrats who already support climate change legislation. The question is whether Sandy's devastating effects will move citizens not directly touched by the storm (and their elected representatives) to rethink their position on the issue in a way that 2005's Hurricane Katrina did not. Nevertheless, President Obama saw fit in his November 6 victory speech to mention the need to address " the destructive power of a warming planet."
Action by Congress on climate change remains unlikely. The political balance of power that derailed greenhouse gas "cap and trade" legislation in 2009 has actually shifted to the right, with the Republicans gaining control of the House in 2010. Moreover, all Representatives and one-third of all Senators are up for reelection every two years, so political momentum will likely shift only if and when it becomes clear that public perception has shifted.
The 2009 economic stimulus legislation included unprecedented DOE funding for a broad range of programs intended to spur development of renewable energy sources and related technologies, such as electric vehicles and a "smart grid" for electricity distribution. Given concern over federal budget deficits and Republican opposition to the sort of direct funding that preceded the bankruptcy of Solyndra and several other green energy companies, it's highly unlikely that Congress will authorize additional spending on such a scale. However, if not trumped by tax code reform, some types of renewable energy tax credits might find sufficient bipartisan support in Congress.
Although the concept of a carbon tax has been touted by some economists, it has never gained political traction. However, leaders of both political parties have recently spoken of the need for a comprehensive overhaul of the federal tax code, which would inevitably involve horse-trading to achieve passage. If the Obama administration wanted a carbon tax badly enough, Congressional Democrats might be willing to offer enough concessions on other tax issues important to Congressional Republicans that a carbon tax could find its way into a negotiated reform package.
Faced with Congressional gridlock, President Obama's climate change initiatives in his first term were implemented via administrative agency action, primarily involving U.S. EPA, the Department of Energy, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. U.S. EPA has focused on regulating and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, DOE has sought to stimulate development of "green energy" technologies, and FERC has sought to make the national power grid more accommodating to renewable sources like wind and solar. There is every reason to expect these efforts to continue, and even to accelerate, during a second term.
Second-term presidents have devoted varying degrees of attention to their historical "legacy." Having uttered the now-famous reference to "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," at the peak of his 2008 election campaign, it does not require much imagination to anticipate that President Obama and his administration will decide to pursue greenhouse gas regulation and other climate change issues more aggressively during his second term.