By Jean Chemnick
President Obama today said that rather than waiting for Congress to act on climate change, his administration would move forward in every way it could — curbing emissions, shoring up American infrastructure and heading “a coordinated assault” abroad on global warming.
“Courage to Act”
The president said he chose the venue for today’s speech — a sun-dappled Georgetown University quad — because climate change is a threat to the next generation’s future.
“The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late,” he said. “And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world we leave behind not just for you but for your children and your grandchildren.”
Congress has had its chance to weigh in with legislation, the president said, but has not done so.
“This is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock,” he said. “It demands our attention now.”
Wiping perspiration from his brow and removing his jacket on a 90-degree afternoon, Obama told a friendly crowd that he would direct his administration to do everything within its current legal authority to address warming.
He began by directing U.S. EPA to issue carbon dioxide rules for new and existing power plants under the Clean Air Act. The rule is a top priority for environmentalists, but he presented it as one of fairness. Power plants emit about 40 percent of the United States’ CO2, he noted.
Currently There Are No Limits on Carbon Pollution
“But here’s the thing: Right now there are no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can dump into our air. None. Zero,” he said. “That’s not right, that’s not safe, and we’re going to do something about it.”
By promulgating the rules, Obama said, EPA would simply “put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants.”
The plan pairs the EPA utility rules with new energy efficiency and renewable energy use targets for the federal government, some new private-sector standards for sectors like heavy-duty trucks and streamlined renewable energy permitting on public lands.
Obama’s plan also directs federal agencies to do what they can to ratchet down emissions abroad, both by setting guidelines for how foreign aid can be spent and by renewing U.S. involvement in international negotiations to limit greenhouse gases.
“We’ve got a vital role to play,” he said. “We can’t stand on the sidelines.”
The plan would bar U.S. foreign aid dollars from supporting coal-fired power plants abroad, use U.S. leverage to urge the World Bank and other institutions not to make similar investments and ramp up international efforts to limit non-CO2 greenhouse gases.
Keystone XL Challenged, but Wiggle Room Remains
Obama also pledged to direct his administration to work with states and local communities to prepare for climate-fueled storms, heat waves and other events. And he cast doubt on the future of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, saying he would not approve the project if the State Department finds that it will increase worldwide greenhouse gas emissions (see related story).
The quad had the feel of a garden party with environmentalists and administration officials braving the humidity to see their issue finally step into the national spotlight.
U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said before the speech that the president’s plan would help him in his work, because it demonstrated U.S. seriousness on the issue.
“The more that they see that the United States is acting with vigor and determination, the more credibility and leverage we have internationally, there’s no question about that,” he said.
Stern said negotiators from other countries had already responded to the comments Obama has made on climate change since his re-election last fall.
“Any sign — and this certainly is — of strong presidential action and strong leadership on this issue have a very positive effect and translates into a boost for our credibility,” he said.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who both lead the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, said they were pleased with the address. The two met recently with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to share their views about what the administration could do on its own to curb emissions, and they said some of those ideas were represented in the plan.
But Whitehouse said executive action on its own would not be enough.
“Congress is Going to Have to Act”
“I think ultimately what everyone recognizes is that Congress is going to have to act, and there’s going to have to be a price on carbon so that a market-based plan can be achieved,” he said. “And he can’t do that on his own, so that’s not today’s speech. But what he did today is to take a very strong step forward within the executive authorities he has.”
Earlier in the day, former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) said in a brief telephone interview that the president’s action puts pressure on Congress to find a way to curb emissions that is not onerous to the economy — as he says regulations of this kind would be.
But Inglis said the president should be “bold” and engage with Congress to find a carbon tax swap that all sides could support.
“I think that we could break through this scientific denial and get to a real debate and past denial of the problem,” he said.
Obama in his address honored the role President Nixon played in setting up EPA and noted that his opponent in the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), proposed CO2 cap-and-trade bills in the past.
“Climate change has become a partisan issue, but it hasn’t always been,” Obama said. He said he would look for Republicans to offer their own ideas on climate change but added, “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.”Φ