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Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - Page updated at 08:00 p.m.

Climate change high on Obama’s new agenda

The New York Times


President Obama made addressing climate change the most prominent policy vow of his second Inaugural Address on Monday, setting in motion what Democrats say will be a deliberately paced but aggressive campaign built around the use of his executive powers to sidestep congressional opposition.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said, at the start of eight full sentences on the subject, more than he devoted to any other specific area. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

Obama is heading into the effort having extensively studied the lessons from his first term, when he failed to win passage of comprehensive legislation to reduce emissions of the gases that cause global warming. This time, the White House plans to avoid such a fight and instead focus on what it can do administratively.

The centerpiece will be action by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clamp down further on emissions from coal-burning power plants under regulations still being drafted — and likely to draw legal challenges.

That step will be supplemented by adoption of new energy-efficiency standards for home appliances and buildings, a seemingly small step that can have a substantial impact by reducing demand for electricity. Those standards would echo the sharp increase in fuel economy that the administration required from automakers in Obama’s first term.

The Pentagon, one of the country’s largest energy users, is also taking strides toward cutting use and converting to renewable fuels.

Those steps are being planned in conjunction with a plan to build public support and head off political opposition in a way the administration did not the last time around. But the White House has cautioned environmental activists and Democrats on Capitol Hill not to expect full-scale engagement on the issue while Congress remains tied up with matters like guns, immigration and the next round of budget showdowns.

Still, Obama has signaled that he intends to step up his own role in making a public case for why action is necessary even as the economy continues to recover. In addition to the prominent mention Monday, Obama also used strong language in his speech on election night, connecting the rise in extreme weather to climate change, and he intends to highlight the issue in his State of the Union address next month and his budget plan soon after, aides say.

Beyond new policies, the administration is seeking ways to capitalize on the surge of natural-gas production over the past few years as a cheaper and cleaner alternative to coal, believing that both the economics and the politics of the issue become easier as the president faces less opposition from coal-producing states and coal-burning utilities.

Obama’s path on global warming is a case study in his evolving sense of the limits of his power and his increased willingness to work around intense conservative opposition rather than seek engagement and compromise. It is a far cry from Obama’s 2008 pledge to heal the planet, and a reflection of recalibrated strategy — and more realistic expectations — as he embarks on his second term.

After the legislative defeat in 2010, Obama moved forward on a number of fronts, including emissions standards on motor vehicles and financing in his stimulus bill for alternative energy. Despite the lack of any comprehensive legislation, emissions have declined roughly 10 percent since he took office, a result both of the economic slowdown and energy-efficiency moves by government and industry.

The administration is already discussing with congressional Democrats, some of whom are leery of the issue because their states are home to coal-fired power plants or produce coal, the prospect of having to head off a Republican counterattack on the new regulations. Democrats are paying particular attention to the likelihood of Republicans employing a little-used procedure that allows Congress to block new regulations with a simple-majority vote.

Democrats in the Senate are already girding for a battle with Republicans when Obama nominates a new EPA head.

Despite the renewed attention to climate change after Hurricane Sandy and new reports documenting that temperatures in the continental United States last year were the highest ever recorded, there is no sign that the politics of the issue will get any easier for Obama.

“Whatever environmentalists may hope, the Obama White House and congressional Democrats are unlikely to make global warming a top issue in 2013 or 2014,” said a comprehensive new report by Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist, on the failure of Obama’s first-term push.

Anthony Leiserowitz, a specialist on climate-change communications at Yale University, offered a different view, based on years of polling. His surveys have found there is support for taking action to reduce global warming across party lines, including by 52 percent of Republicans in a poll taken in September.

“Obama is not running for election again, and in a sense that frees him,” Leiserowitz said. “There are a lot of calls for him now to hold that national conversation and say to the American people, ‘We’re seeing these impacts, we’re vulnerable, we need to be taking much more significant action to prepare ourselves and reduce our risks in the future.’ ”