The strong reaction to President Obama’s extended remarks on the climate suggests that he wasn’t doing anything on the matter and suddenly feels liberated to do so. Not so.
As I have discussed twice previously, after the failure of the Congress to pass a carbon cap in 2010, when Democrats had full control, the President immediately turned to “Plan B.” Through the EPA, he delivered an unspoken message to polluters: if you don’t help us do this easy way, we’re going to do this the hard way.
In other words, if we don’t do this through Congress, which can give you lots of subsidies to ease your transition to a clean energy economy, we’re going to do this through the EPA, which gives you nothing.
The EPA’s tightening of the vice has been slow so far, to avoid stoking conservative backlash. But all the President did yesterday was tell industry: now that the election is over, the tightening will get faster, until you come back to the negotiating table.
The centerpiece will be action by the Environmental Protection Agency to clamp down further on emissions from coal-burning power plants under regulations still being drafted — and likely to draw legal challenges.
The approach is a turnabout from the first term, when Mr. Obama’s guiding principle in trying to pass the cap-and-trade bill was that a negotiated legislative solution was likely to be more politically palatable than regulation by executive fiat. Now there is a broad expectation that he will follow up his first big use of the E.P.A.’s powers to rein in emissions — proposed rules last year for new power plants — with a plan to crack down on emissions from existing power plants.
According to estimates from the Natural Resources Defense Council, emissions from current coal-fired plants could be reduced by more than 25 percent by 2020, yielding large health and environmental benefits at relatively low cost. Such an approach would allow Mr. Obama to fulfill his 2009 pledge to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by about 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, the group says.
This strikes fear in the hearts of the nation’s atmospheric polluters.
The only way they can stop it from happening is to pressure House Republicans, and fossil fuel state Democrats, to pass a law that will cap carbon but cushion the blow on them.
As we’ve seen with the fiscal cliff deal, Republicans can be broken when they realize that 1) inaction leads to a worse outcome for them, and 2) their corporate donors tell them to quit obstructing.
Obama is setting up the same dynamic for the climate. Easy way or hard way, we will cap carbon.