Obama to Bypass Congress on Climate Change

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President Barack Obama today announced a series of actions to address fossil fuel emissions that cause climate change, and to prepare the United States for the consequences of that climate change.

Speaking at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Obama announced that the administration would, among other actions, direct the Environmental Protection Agency to establish limits for carbon pollution at new and existing power plants, end subsidies for companies building coal plants abroad unless they use carbon recapture technology or are in the very poorest countries, seek to reduce carbon pollution by at least 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030 through efficiency standards on appliances and federal buildings, develop fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles; permit enough renewables projects — like wind and solar — on public lands by 2020 to power more than 6 million homes and expand major new and existing international initiatives, including bilateral initiatives with China, India and other major emitting countries.

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The full President’s Climate Action Plan is available here. There’s also an accompanying fact sheet, which Andy Revkin of the New York Times has included in a commentary on his DotEarth blog.

Michael O’Brien of NBC News reported that the president’s actions rely on existing executive action and so can be undertaken without recourse to Congress, which has so far refused to adopt a carbon tax or cap-and-trade legislation to address climate change.

“I think, going back to the president’s words in the State of the Union, he made it very clear that his preference would be for Congress to act, and move comprehensive energy and climate legislation forward,” O’Brien quoted an unnamed senior administration official as explaining in advance of the speech. “At this point, the president is prepared to act.”

Not everyone was impressed.

“I think this is absolutely crazy,” said House Speaker John Boehner last week. “Why would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill American jobs at a time when the American people are still asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’”

But, as Dana Nuccitelli writes in The Guardian, the president noted previous warnings about job losses during efforts to reduce acid rain. And some of Obama’s proposed actions — specifically the mandate for EPA power plant standards — are already legally required under the Clean Air Act.

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In a 2007 decision, observes Nuccitelli, the United States Supreme Court “ruled that if greenhouse gases were determined to endanger public health or welfare, the EPA would be required to regulate their emissions,” and that two years later, the EPA issued an endangerment finding in which the agency “correctly determined that greenhouse gas emissions clearly endanger public health and welfare via their impacts on climate change.”

Both Nuccitelli and Matt Yglesias, writing in Slate, argue that if opponents are unhappy with the use of such tactics, then, in Yglesias’ words, “if they could take a deep breath and consider the national interest for a moment, they’d see that the best cure for the very real flaws in EPA regulation is comprehensive climate legislation featuring cap-and-trade or a carbon tax.”

One aspect of the speech that is destined to generate a great deal of attention and consternation among opponents of climate action is that the president revealed he would direct the State Department to reject approval for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline if it were shown to cause a “significant” increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The pipeline, which, if constructed, would carry oil from Alberta’s Tar Sands to the Gulf of Mexico, has become a particular target of environmentalists.

Among supporters of action on climate change, responses ranged from muted to enthusiastic.

In a statement, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), called the plan “a necessary next step to meet an immediate, worrying shortfall in action to deal with climate change (that) can be a critical move forward on the path towards a new, global climate agreement.”

Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace, while acknowledging that “95 percent of the plan isn’t new,” told Discovery News that “this was as much as they could do given the immense pressure of the dirty coal industry and the inaction of Congress.” In fact, he said, it was probably “the most complete speech on climate change I’ve ever heard” from a public official. “It was more than we expected, and the Keystone element was icing on the cake.”

Writing in Grist, David Roberts called the plan “vintage Obama. He refuses to wage lofty ideological battles, which frustrates the hell out of people who view those battles as necessary and inevitable. He doesn’t direct a lot of energy at bashing his head into walls. He just puts the available resources to work doing what can be done. It’s not enough — it’s not even as much as he could do — but it would be a big mistake to think it doesn’t matter.”

Obama himself was unequivocal in his closing remarks for the need for action.

“I don’t have much patience for those that deny this problem is real,” he said. “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it won’t protect you from the coming storm.”

Photo: President Barack Obama speaks as he unveils his plan on climate change at Georgetown University on June 25, 2013. Alex Wong/Getty Images

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