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Obama unveils 'biggest step we've ever taken' on climate

President Barack Obama announced on Monday that the U.S. will limit — for the first time ever — the amount of carbon power plants can pump into the atmosphere.

President Barack Obama announced on Monday that the U.S. will take a giant stride in the race to prevent catastrophic climate change, limiting — for the first time ever — the amount of carbon power plants can pump into the atmosphere.

If the proposed Clean Power Plan survives legal and legislative challenges, it would shutter hundreds of existing coal-fired power plants, prevent construction of new ones and boost renewable energy to heights not previously seen. It could also fundamentally rewrite Obama's mixed legacy on global warming, making good on his 2008 inaugural promise to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet.

"With this Clean Power Plan, by 2030, carbon emission from our power plants will be 32% lower than they were a decade ago," Obama said during a press conference on Monday. He added that the plan would prevent premature deaths caused by pollution and dramatically decrease asthma attacks for children. It would also particularly benefit children in low-income households, Obama said. 

"I don’t want my grand-kids to not be able to swim in Hawaii or not be able to climb a mountain and see a glacier because we didn't do something about it," Obama said in the emotional conclusion to his speech. "That’d be shameful of us. This is our moment to get this right and leave something better for our kids."

Obama first announced the plan via a video on Facebook late Saturday, when he called the plan "the biggest, most important step we’ve ever taken to combat climate change.”

The president is staking his remaining time in office on an "all-out-push" on climate change, Brian Deese, the administration's top adviser on environmental policy, said in a conference call Sunday. In the weeks ahead, the president will address a clean energy summit in Nevada, travel to the melting edge of the Alaskan Arctic and appear alongside major ally Pope Francis.

"We have a moral obligation to leave our children a planet that’s not polluted or damaged," the White House said in a fact sheet released on Monday, ahead of the formal announcement. "Taking action now is critical."  

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The "final rule," first proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency more than a year ago, is stronger and more sweeping than the draft it was based on. The most progressive portion requires power plants to slash emissions 32% from 2005 levels by 2030, administration officials told msnbc in an email. That's a two-percentage-point increase off the draft version. 

In another break from the draft version of the rule, the final regulation favors a shift to renewable energy rather than a “building block” transition to natural gas first. Natural gas produces about half the carbon pollution of coal, but wind and solar energy produce zero carbon. 

As a result, the final rule is structured to reward utilities for investing rapidly in those sources. That's expected to increase the generating capacity of renewables to 28% by 2030, a increase of six percentage points from the earlier version. The White House will provide credits to states that increase their use of wind and solar energy in 2020 and 2021, according to administration officials.

While emission limits are the most stringent in history, they allow states flexibility in how they decide to achieve compliance. In other words, no state will be required to shutter all of its coal-fired power plants -- only to bring emissions beneath the level allowed for the state's power sector. 

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy praised the plan Sunday in a preview call with reporters. McCarthy called the plan "flexible and customizable, and she predicted success at a United Nations summit meeting in Paris in December, when leaders hope to agree on a global accord.

"Since three of the world’s largest economies have stepped up," she said, referring to agreements between America, China, and Brazil, "we’re confident other nations will follow, and the world will reach a climate agreement in Paris later this year."

The final rule included some adjustments, following more than 4 million public comments and fierce complaints from coal-reliant states like Wyoming and West Virginia. For one, it pushed back the start day by two years to 2022. Still, the plans must be submitted to the EPA by 2018. 

And the rule -- known as the EPA's Clean Power Plan -- are expected to touch off an extraordinary legal, political and even cultural battle. The fight could stretch for years, inspiring an escalating level of activism and opposition. Many experts expect its fate to ultimately end up being decided by the Supreme Court. 

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The rule has already figured into the 2016 presidential debate, as Democrats and Republicans remain sharply divided over the question of whether man-made climate change is even real, let alone whether the government is justified in pursuing aggressive regulations to combat it.

Last Monday, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton said she would support Obama’s EPA rule if elected president. Indeed, she pledged to go even further, creating enough clean energy to power every home in the United States by 2027. 

“The Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan is a significant step forward in meeting the urgent threat of climate change,” she said in a statement Sunday. “As President, I will build on the work of this Administration and make America a clean energy superpower and a global leader in the fight against climate change. That’s a promise.”

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has been leading the opposition. He called for open defiance of the plan in a March op-ed for a local paper, dubbing it a “war on coal” and a “attack on the middle class." 

The rule is probably Obama's last, best chance to deal with global warming, and reverse a first term that many activists felt was an environmental failure. He championed a bill that would have capped carbon emissions, but it died in Congress. He also celebrated America’s gains on Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer, a move that frustrated the green movement. 

The rule comes at a time when the coal business is already on its knees. Alpha Natural Resources — one of the biggest miners of U.S. coal — is planning to file for bankruptcy protection in Virginia as soon as Monday, Bloomberg News reported. Three of its rivals — Walter Energy, Patriot Coal and James River Coal — have already filed for bankruptcy during the past 15 months.

Meanwhile, corporate America seems to be leaning toward supporting the rule. Hundreds of investors and blue chip companies — including General Mills, Nestle, Staples, Adidas and Mars — cheered the rule in a letter sent to 29 governors Friday. 

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But the fight that matters most will be legal. In April of this year, 14 states and the nation’s two largest coal companies offered a preview of what is expected. They asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C. to block the EPA from even finalizing Monday's rule.

The effort failed — the judges were perplexed by the notion of blocking a mere proposal — but the arguments are likely to live on. At issue are differing interpretations of the Clean Air Act: one favored by industry, which claims the EPA has no authority to issue the rule; the favored other by the EPA, which says it does. 

The coal industry and politicians from coal-heavy states argue that the rule will shut down hundreds of coal plants, kill jobs and raise consumer energy prices. The EPA counters that the rule will create new, clean energy jobs, save lives and lower prices in the long-term.

Additionally, officials argue that without the rule furious storms, extreme heat and poisonous air will kill thousands and rob the economy of billions of dollars in the next century. In June, the EPA published a worst-case scenario for the effects of global warming if nothing is done.

In her call with reporters on Sunday, administrator McCarthy had strong words for critics of the agency's Clean Power Plan. "Some special-interest critics will tell you it can’t be done," she said. "But they’re wrong."