Climate Politics Will Be Brutal In 2014

Bill Scher

Progressives may be feeling pretty good these days. De Blasio ascendant. Summers thwarted. Republicans imploding over ObamaCare.

Well, here’s a jerk back into harsh reality.

President Obama’s EPA is expected to unveil the centerpiece of its climate plan in June 2014. The Republican attacks on it will make the ObamaCare fight look like an English contra dance. And there’s no guarantee we will win the battle of public opinion.

A stern wake-up call was issued earlier this month in Australia, as voters tossed out of the power the left-leaning Labor Party and installed a right-wing coalition specifically to scrap Labor’s carbon tax.

Last week, the EPA has proposed carbon cap on newly built power plants, which will effectively block the construction of any more old-style coal-fired plants. Not only did Republicans denounce the “war on coal,” but so did coal country Democrats running in tight races.

But an even more far-reaching proposal is on the horizon. Yesterday, the President’s top environment adviser confirmed that the EPA’s carbon regulations on existing power plants, which produce 40 percent of America’s greenhouse gases, is scheduled for June, five months before Election Day.

All indications are that EPA’s plan will be designed to give states considerable flexibility presciely so the coal industry can adapt and economic disruption will be minimal. But as we well know with ObamaCare, another plan designed with state flexibility in mind, nuance is lost on the haters. The moderate path will not protect the plan from right-wing outrage.

Surely, President Obama did not set this schedule blindly. He’s just up against the clock of the end of the presidency, the United Nations and nature itself. The rulemaking process is intentionally slow and deliberate. A draft rule proposed in June 2014 won’t became final until June 2015, if there are no delays. You can expect court challenges after that. Furthermore, the UN climate summit slated for December 2015 is the next chance for a binding international agreement, but only if the US has a climate plan firmly in place will Obama have leverage.

Besides, Obama already has low expectations for the midterms. Unless the Republican Party completely succumbs to its own dysfunction (which is possible!), well-crafted congressional redistricting should keep the House in Republican hands. And the 2014 Senate map is tilted their way too, with all competitive races in right-leaning states. A climate plan generating an extra dollop of right-wing backlash doesn’t make much of a difference in the short-run.

Yet we still have to worry about the long-run. A Republican Congress may not be able to stop Obama’s rulemaking before 2016, but a Republican President along with a friendly Congress could in 2017. We don’t want see our 2016 elections be a repeat of Australia 2013.

That means we are going to have figure out how to defend a very complicated set of rules designed to prevent a problem that most people do not consider to be urgent in nature and restrict the unfettered expansion of an American industry at a time when job growth is sorely needed.

Of course, we have answers to these questions. If we wait until the worst effects of climate change hit we will be unable to reverse them. We can engineer a smooth transition to a clean energy economy by creating green jobs and subsidizing carbon capture technology to prevent a coal collapse.

But these sorts of answers are not so easily embraced, and we have no template of success that can stand up to the smears from a well-funded attack campaign (something with which ObamaCare never really had to deal.)

So far, the Obama campaign succesor Organizing for Action has been prepping for this fight with a campaign to call out Congress’ “climate deniers.” That’s a good start, making the wise choice to begin on offense. But at some point, once a specific plan is on the firing line taking a blizzard of flak, you can’t get around the need for defense.

We don’t have much time left to cap carbon, and we don’t have much time left to figure out how to defend capping carbon. Time to start figuring it out.

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