If the White House were guided by nothing but political considerations, especially in an election year, it probably would have skipped a fight over climate change. Action on global warming is not high on voters' list of top priorities, and congressional Republicans didn't need another issue on which to turn their apoplexy nob to 11.
But with the climate crisis intensifying, it appears President Obama is putting policy above politics: his administration announced a proposal this morning that intends to cut carbon emissions by 30% before the year 2030. As Ned Resnikoff noted
, if the policy is fully implemented, it has the potential to be "the most ambitious environmental initiative in U.S. history."
The energy sector accounts for about one-third of all carbon emissions in the United States, according to the EPA. Trimming the pollution from that sector of the economy could be accomplished through a number of means, and the proposed rule would allow states to take advantage of many of them: Cap-and-trade, investment in alternative energy sources, and so on. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy had previously hinted that the EPA would soon be proposing a "controversial" rule. However, she also said the rule would provide states with considerable flexibility in implementation.
"This plan is all about flexibility. That's what makes it ambitious, but achievable," McCarthy said. "That's how we can keep our energy affordable and reliable."
Note, today's new regulatory safeguards are far more sweeping than those Obama announced last year. Those policies applied to new power plants, while today's new rules apply to power plants that are already operating, pumping carbon pollution into the environment right now.
By all appearances, the EPA is setting the standards, while giving states the latitude to reach those standards however they see fit, based on their state economies, industries, and needs. Most will probably opt for a cap-and-trade system -- which used to be the preferred method for combatting global warming from Republicans who believe in climate science -- but that wouldn't necessarily be required.
The New York Times'
, "If it withstands an expected onslaught of legal and legislative attacks, experts say that it could close hundreds of the plants and also lead, over the course of decades, to systemic changes in the American electricity industry, including transformations in how power is generated and used."
It's a policy breakthrough that, at least for now, does not require Congress to do anything but complain.
The Obama administration originally hoped to work with lawmakers on a climate bill, built on provisions that both parties supported up until 2008, but the president seems to have concluded that there's no longer any point in expecting Congress to act. The crisis, however, persists, leaving the White House with little choice
but to act unilaterally.
Can Obama do that? As Jonathan Cohn explained
the other day, there is no doubt the White House has the authority to act.
The Clean Air Act of 1970, first signed into law by Richard Nixon and then amended twice, requires the EPA to regulate pollution that threatens public health and welfare. As the Supreme Court affirmed in a landmark 2007 ruling, it’s basically up to the EPA to decide what kinds of pollution meet that standard. In 2008, Stephen Johnson, who was then the EPA Administrator, formally told President Bush that the federal government is “compelled to act” on climate change. Bush ignored the recommendation. One year later, Lisa Jackson, Johnson’s successor, issued an official “endangerment finding” that greenhouse gases were trapping heat inside the earth’s atmosphere and causing temperatures to rise rise.... [T]he Obama Administration is carrying out the intent of Congress, as expressed in previously enacted legislation. This Congress is entitled to feel differently than its predecessors did. But to take away EPA's mandate to act, it would have to pass new legislation that supersedes the old. In other words, it would have to amend or repeal the Clean Air Act itself. That's not likely to happen.
As for how much this policy will cost, much of the price will depend on how it's implemented. Brad Plumer explained
this morning, "In its proposal, the EPA estimates that the power-plant rule will cost electric utilities $5.5 billion in 2020, rising to as much as $8.8 billion in 2030 (that's all in today's dollars). Those costs include everything from monitoring emissions to upgrading plants." On the other hand, the EPA also estimates that the policy's "health and climate benefits will outweigh the cost."
In terms of the larger political context, it's worth appreciating the fact that many, including some of the president's allies, were skeptical Obama would step up on climate policy in such an ambitious way. The president's desire to lead on global warming should no longer be in doubt.
It's a tired cliche to consider every major move from a second-term term president through the "legacy" lens, but once in a great while, it's appropriate. This is one of those instances.
With this in mind, I will be eager to see how the "Why Doesn't Obama Lead More?" crowd responds to today's announcement. My suspicion is that for most, the only presidential leadership that counts is the kind that includes Republicans support, and the fact that Obama is choosing to act on his own necessarily means he's not leading the way the Beltway wants him to.
But for the rest of us, the president has identified a genuine crisis and he's acting on an ambitious plan to address it, whether the climate deniers, conspiracy theorists, and polluters like it or not. That sounds like leadership to me.