After Years of Gridlock on Climate Change, Obama is About to Play His Trump Card

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President Obama will use his executive authority to move forward on the most ambitious anti-global warming initiative of any U.S. president Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Step aside, Keystone XL pipeline. There’s a new, bigger climate battle about to take over Washington.

With Congress in gridlock and climate change deniers still dominating the Republican Party, President Obama will use his executive authority to move forward on the most ambitious anti-global warming initiative of any U.S. president.

On Monday, the administration will announce new carbon pollution standards for the nation’s more than 1,000 power plants which produce 40 percent of the country’s carbon pollution -- making these plants the country’s number one producer of greenhouse gases causing climate change. A New York Times report Thursday said the new rules will call for a decrease of 20 percent of plants’ emissions by 2020, a significant amount.

But like everything in Washington these days, the new rules won’t become final without a major fight, and both sides are preparing for war -- in Congress, in the courts, at the state-level, even at the ballot box.

"We see this as the pivotal battle on climate change," David Goldston, Director of Government Affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group playing a leading role in the effort, told reporters at a briefing Wednesday. "For the first time, climate is going to be front and center as the national issue. And what that means, we think, is that when this battle is over and the power plant standards are in effect, climate will have turned into an ordinary environmental issue."

Once the standards are announced, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will take comments on the proposal, make any revisions they see fit, and plan to announce a final rule in June 2015. The states will have a year after that to come up with their own plans to comply with the new standards. Throughout this process, Goldston hopes that the climate change issue will be “demystified”: politicians will learn not to fear it, Americans will come to expect action on it. The new standards, Goldston predicted, will “fundamentally change the political dynamic on climate change.”

Executive action wasn’t Obama’s first choice for addressing climate change. But when a cap-and-trade bill failed in the Senate in 2010, it became clear that Congress was not going to act. With no hope for legislation, the only tool left in the administration’s toolbox was the 1970 Clean Air Act, which gives the president and the EPA the authority to regulate carbon emissions if they are deemed a danger to the public -- in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the act applies to greenhouse gases. But there was a problem: the Clean Air Act was assumed to be ineffective and expensive.

So the NRDC set about to figure out how to use the Clean Air Act effectively and cost-efficiently, bringing in outside consultants to model the impacts of various strategies. Their plan came out in late 2012, just as Obama was looking to determine his second-term agenda. When the EPA announces its standards Monday, they are expected to borrow heavily from the NRDC’s proposal.

The idea behind the NRDC plan is to allow states flexibility in meeting carbon emission goals set by the EPA -- goals that will vary by state depending on the energy sources used in each state. Rather than a top-down mandate that states upgrade plants in a specific way, the plan encourages innovative solutions to reduce carbon emissions by, for example, increasing energy efficiency or ramping up energy production through solar or wind. NRDC predicts this will provide a boost to cleaner forms of energy production without significantly raising the cost of energy.

According to the Times report, the EPA will also allow states to opt into regional cap-and-trade markets to meet the new standards. Cap-and-trade systems place a limit on emissions, then allow states or companies to buy and sell permits to pollute at different levels -- effectively creating an emissions tax.

Even though cap-and-trade is a market-based solution embraced over the past few decades by Republicans from President George H.W. Bush to John McCain to Mitt Romney, the GOP has largely opposed a cap-and-trade solution since Obama and Democrats embraced it in 2009. With or without the cap-and-trade element, Republicans and industry interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are gearing up to fight the regulations tooth and nail.

Kicking off this battle in earnest, on Wednesday the Chamber released a report predicting new regulations would cost the U.S. economy $51 billion annually through 2030. Critics of the Chamber’s report say that the study is based on a set of false assumptions meant to inflate the cost and that, notwithstanding those errors, $51 billion is a drop in the bucket given the size of the U.S. economy -- and the potential cost of doing nothing. NRDC released it’s own report Thursday predicting their plan would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and lower power bills.

Though costs of implementation down the road are largely unknowable at this point, the cost issue will loom large in the political battle over the new rules. “Every proposal that has come out of this administration to deal with climate change involves hurting our economy and killing American jobs,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said at a press conference Thursday. “That can’t be the prescription for dealing with changes to our climate.”

The upcoming political battle could immediately ensnare Democrats running for re-election in red states; Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, for example, is running for re-election in a state highly dependent economically on the oil industry by touting her position as chairman of the Senate’s energy committee.

The NRDC believes Obama and the administration are on the winning side of the issue.

The environmental group conducted an opinion poll on the new regulations in nine states where this year’s pivotal Senate races will play out, including red states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alaska, and purple states like Michigan, Colorado and New Hampshire. Surveyed about the new EPA standards, the response was very positive: 53 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of independents and 87 percent of Democrats support EPA emission standards to combat climate change. Even in red, southern states, a majority favored action on climate change.

Heather Taylor-Miesle, the director of the NRDC Action Fund, the group’s political arm, said the polling shows American attitudes are shifting on the issue of climate change, putting Republicans out of touch with their own constituents.

“The three groups that actually want climate action the most are women, are young people, are Latinos,” Taylor-Miesle said, pointing out that these three constituencies, known collectively as the “Rising American Electorate,” will determine the political future of the country. “Climate denial will not last,” she said, adding that she doesn’t believe a climate change denier could win the White House in 2016.

Even if the political winds are changing on the issue, the Obama administration is not taking any chances on what they hope will be one of the president’s defining legacies. The NRDC’s Goldston stressed that the White House is taking the politics and messaging as well as the substance of the issue seriously.

“There's no question that they've learned from past battles and they've put together the team to do this and they've been meeting with everyone who is interested, whether that's business groups or environmental groups,” he told reporters. "They brought in [former Bill Clinton Chief of Staff John] Podesta specifically to work on this.”

On the policy side, the EPA is already meeting with state-level officials to prepare states for the upcoming regulations so that the tight implementation timeline remains on schedule. Lawyers are already bracing to defend the regulations in upcoming court battles.

Environmental groups, including the NRDC, will also launch what they are calling “climate summer” in June, a nationwide push to support the new regulations through television advertising, a digital campaign, and over 300 events in 36 states featuring elected officials, and members of the faith and business communities.

"We absolutely see this fight over carbon standards as essentially the Super Bowl of climate politics,” Peter Altman, the NRDC’s climate and clean air campaign director, told reporters Wednesday. “It’s a fight to determine whether we will protect our health and future generations."

In April, the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the planet was poised for disaster, and said climate change was already having an impact around the world.

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