Leading America's Fight Against Climate Change

Washington, D.C., is littered with the careers of well-meaning public servants who came to do good but fell victim to politics. Lisa Jackson is determined not to become one of them. As head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she oversees the quality of America's air and water and monitors pollution levels. It's a job that endears her to green activists (and anyone who likes clean air and water)—but it puts her at odds with some of the nation's largest, richest industries.

For decades, big manufacturers and commercial farmers—who retain powerful lobbyists and make large contributions to the election campaigns of members of Congress—have pushed back against the EPA's efforts to enact stricter controls on pollution. In the George W. Bush years they often got their way, as the EPA rolled back on enforcement.

Now Jackson is out to change that. With the backing of her boss, President Barack Obama, she has announced that unless Congress acts by next January, the EPA will use its authority under America's Clean Air Act to phase in new restrictions on carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. It's an audacious gambit by a single agency—essentially a threat from Jackson to Congress that unless it gets its act together, she'll move unilaterally. The U.S. emits nearly a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide; late last year EPA scientists identified CO2 and five other less prominent greenhouse gases as a threat to public health, and Jackson has vowed to cut back on all of them. "The difference between this administration and the last is that we don't believe we have an option to do nothing," she says.

In making her announcement, Jackson and the White House weren't just putting U.S. polluters on notice. They were also sending a symbolic message to Congress and the rest of the world that, 12 years after it refused to sign the Kyoto treaty, and after offering virtually no concessions in Copenhagen, the United States is now taking climate change seriously. It was no coincidence that Jackson released the agency's research on the opening day of December's Copenhagen summit. "These long-overdue findings cement 2009 as the year when the U.S. government began addressing the challenge of greenhouse-gas pollution and seizing the opportunity of clean-energy reform," she said then.

Environmentalists applauded. But three months later, Jackson—a chemical engineer who spent years working within the EPA bureaucracy—is starting to see how difficult that may be to do back home. Already, powerful interests are lining up against the anticipated changes, which she and agency scientists have promised to detail later this year. Industry groups like the American Public Power Association are readying lobbying campaigns to kill or at least slow the impending regulations, and more than 100 agriculture and energy groups have asked Jackson to stand down. "It will create a huge competitive disadvantage to our industry," says Nancy Gravatt, a spokesperson for the American Iron and Steel Institute. "We already filed a legal challenge. The further this gets, the more of that we will be doing. We will continue to contest this."

Politicians on Capitol Hill are also agitating against the cuts. "Getting climate policy right will take a lot of work and should be done by those elected to Congress," says Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the nation's largest producers of oil and paper. "We may not be moving as fast as some would like, but we are working. And we're trying to make sure we balance our need to curb emissions with our need for a robust and growing economy. That's a balance the EPA can't guarantee."

Jackson knew that threatening to act by executive fiat wouldn't be popular. But she also knew it would get people's attention, and maybe prod Congress to act. She says that she would prefer to go through—instead of around—Congress. "You can definitely cut emissions through regulation, but a much more efficient way is through legislation," she says. For one thing, Congress could sugarcoat a carbon-cutting bill with tax cuts and other incentives, making it easier to get industry on board.

Jackson's do-it-or-else version contains none of that. Yet despite protests by members of Congress that she is infringing on their turf, leaders on Capitol Hill—bogged down with health-care reform and worried about a double-dip recession—have shown little interest in taking action themselves. Republicans, largely skeptical of climate change, are opposed to steep emissions cuts. And even many Democrats who are sympathetic to the cause in principle don't want to make trouble with big employers (and donors) back in their home districts. (Some lawmakers have introduced protest bills that threaten to rewrite the Clean Air Act to curtail the EPA's power, and even to dry up Jackson's budget. The bills aren't expected to go anywhere, although Jackson says she's prepared to fight such measures if they do.)

The members of Congress who do want to act on global warming recognize that pushing for emissions cuts is the last way to win the support of their colleagues. In the Senate, Democrats John Kerry and Joe Lieberman and Republican Lindsey Graham are working on a broad energy bill that will include government subsidies for businesses to use renewable energy sources. But the measure is expected to be lax on actual carbon reductions, and thus is unlikely to make a meaningful dent in the nation's greenhouse-gas emissions.

The big question in Washington isn't whether the EPA has the authority to go it alone and force polluters to change; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that it does. It's whether the White House is actually serious about carrying out Jackson's plan—or if it is just noisily bluffing to get Congress to move, even if it falls short of Jackson's ambitious proposals to monitor the biggest polluters.

The one to watch for that answer isn't Jackson, but Obama. If the January deadline approaches and Congress still hasn't budged, it will fall to him to decide if he has the stomach to make good on Jackson's ultimatum. It wouldn't be a quiet fight. The other side would attack him as anti-business and anti-job—and that would include some Democrats.

Already there are signs that it may not come to that. As Jackson talks tough about deadlines and cuts—trying to convince industry that the administration is standing behind her plan—the president himself has been notably quiet on the question. His aides, meanwhile, are sending signals that Obama is looking for a way to avoid such a showdown. "The president understands that the EPA must follow the science and its legal obligations," says a White House official who spoke under the usual rules of anonymity. "But he has made abundantly clear that his strong preference is for Congress to pass energy and climate legislation." Hardball Washington translation: let's make a deal.

Join the Discussion