Thursday Climate Change Special Linkage

27 June 2013, 0145 EDT

Aside from some abortion rights Texas senate filibuster coverage, this week’s morning linkage is all about climate change and President Obama’s Tuesday speech at Georgetown University. The announced plan aims to use existing executive branch authority, including the EPA’s ability to regulate pollutants under the Clean Air Act, to initiate measures to control carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases. This move obviates the need for additional legislative action, which isn’t going to happen with this Congress. Beyond the headline announcement for new controls on power plants, the plan has a number of interesting details, particularly related to U.S. international finance and the reduction in support for coal projects around the world.

The general take is, as the FT notes, that this is a modest step in the right direction that reinforces the recent decline in U.S. emissions, down nearly 7% since 2005, driven in part by low natural gas prices, lower economic activity, and renewables. Here are some of the plan’s highlights:

  • Directs the EPA to use its authority under the clean air act to regulate new and existing power plants, with rules to be proposed by summer 2014 and in place by 2015
  • Calls for doubling the production of renewable energy on public lands by 2020
  • Reaffirms recent agreement with China to cut potent greenhouse gas HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons), often used in air conditioners
  • Announces the administration will develop a plan for curbing methane emissions from natural gas production (with uncertain evidence about leakage and fugitive emissions)
  • Directs the Department of Energy to announce new efficiency standards for appliances
  • Announces a variety of measures to shore up U.S. resilience to climate hazards
  • Obama said he won’t approve the Keystone XL pipeline if it “significantly exacerbates” climate change

Here is some useful commentary from around the web:

  • Andrew Revkin applauds the ambition, particularly the call for removal of counterproductive measures (which he hopes means reforms to fire and flood insurance that historically has rewarded housing in vulnerable areas)CLIMATE-articleInline
  • Jason Bordoff and Michael Levi think the Clean Air Act is an imperfect instrument and wish Congress enacted a carbon price (though as a recent paper suggests, regulation might be as efficient/effective, depending on how constructed)
  • Michael Wara dings Obama for more rhetoric than action, faulting the plan for too little new action on transport (with too much talk about biofuels) and inadequate action on power plants (future deadlines but not immediate action, given that the rules have already been in the works years)
  • Nat Keohane reminds us that the plan calls for a comprehensive international effort on air pollution (a welcome change after the U.S. opposed the EU airline tax) and announces an end for financing coal projects around the world except in rare circumstances
  • John Cronin expects the House Republicans to hold hearings when the rules on power plants are finally promulgated and try to enact other measures to make this plan a dead letter (such as cuts in appropriations for government agencies)

I really, really want to believe that this is a new moment of commitment on behalf of this administration, that the political traps that have ensnared and derailed action on occasion won’t happen this time. At the same time, I’ve grown tired of the grand speeches that the President is wont to make and want to see Obama the doer and an effective navigator of the political shoals that delivered health care, not the guy who ushered in the sequestration. Yes, there has been an impressive achievement on automobile fuel efficiency, achieved in part because the U.S. automobile industry was on its back and owed its survival to Obama and couldn’t oppose the measure.

But, what is he going to do about the Keystone XL pipeline? Let’s say he approves it: will he get anything in return for such a move from the right? Will the environmental community forgive him for an occasional apostasy? Should he? Moreover, I worry that the power plant rules might not survive what will certainly be industry opposition from the coal sector. Despite the Supreme Court agreeing that the administration has the authority to regulate carbon as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, there is the expectation that these new rules could end up in court.

I also remained concerned that the Obama Administration might go wobbly again on theses rules and the timetable could lag again in the face of political backlash. The EPA’s proposed new rules for new power plants have been in process for years and deferred. Part of this was smart politics to try to make the rules more politically and legally resilient. While the Natural Resources Defense Council has an innovative and attractive idea that would have the EPA give states the flexibility for how to achieve the goals, it is unclear if these too will be litigated. Other concerns: will the Republicans retaliate for this plan by sinking Gina McCarthy nomination to lead the EPA?

India’s monsoon season reminds us of the stakes associated with climate-related disasters and the prospects for their greater intensity in the future, exacerbated by other habits of unsustainable land use, deforestation, and human habitation in vulnerable areas. At least 1000 have died already in recents floods and tens of thousands more have been displaced. Let us hope that the measures in the Obama plan to reduce carbon pollution and prepare for the consequences of climate change at home and abroad actually are implemented.
I’ll close with this. On Tuesday, Wendy Davis, a State Senator from Fort Worth, held off an impending vote on a bill that would restrict abortion rights for women in Texas by leading a filibuster for eleven hours. On technicalities, her filibuster was broken with a bit more than an hour to go, but her colleagues gummed up the final hour with procedural arguments until crowds of protesters deafened the halls of the Texas state capitol and made it impossible to conduct a vote before the special session expired at midnight. If you missed the proceedings, which were streamed live by the Texas Tribune for hundreds of thousands to see, you can catch up by watching the Taiwanese animation treatment.