06/26/2013 - 06:00

Obama’s pragmatic climate change speech

Jonas MonastTim Profeta

Jonas Monast

Monast directs the Climate and Energy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and...

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Tim Profeta

Profeta is the founding director of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and an associate professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy.

President Barack Obama has called for a renewed focus on the challenge of addressing climate change, using a speech at Georgetown University on June 25 to provide a broad outline of actions his administration will take in the coming years.

The White House’s new Climate Action Plan draws upon a range of existing legal tools, including Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, energy efficiency standards, and the federal government’s purchasing power. It also strengthens planning to deal with natural disasters. What made the speech particularly noteworthy, though, was that it signaled the president’s willingness to use the two most powerful means currently at his disposal: the bully pulpit and the Clean Air Act. 

Emphasizing why the nation needs to act—a point that is all too often lost in the partisan jockeying on the issue of climate change—President Obama framed the debate as a moral obligation and cited scientific findings and statistics on rising temperatures, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and severe weather events.

The president also called attention to the question of how to respond to the challenge. When President Obama says he is going to take certain steps, it can bring others to the table. This is not new terrain for the president. For example, when the administration developed new greenhouse gas rules for automobiles in 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation worked with the auto industry, environmental groups, state officials, and labor unions to come up with new standards. The resulting regulations will double fuel efficiency standards by 2025. Just as important, the new rules were received with little controversy because many of the affected stakeholders were involved in the regulatory process.

Now, the president intends to introduce new standards for power plant emissions, and said he will instruct the EPA to engage stakeholders—industry, environmental groups, and states—in the design of new rules. Granted, there are important differences between the 2009 effort and the upcoming power plant rules. In 2009, the auto industry was in the middle of being bailed out, whereas today’s power providers are in healthier economic shape. Nonetheless, it is significant to see the president make a strong statement that his administration will act, and at the same time seek input from all the affected parties.

A central element in the president’s plan is relying on the Clean Air Act to secure emissions reductions from the electric power sector—responsible for approximately one-third of US greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing the sector’s impact requires two steps—ensuring that new power plants generate fewer emissions than the facilities they are replacing, and lowering emissions from existing plants. The EPA is already on track to regulate emissions from new plants. The agency issued a proposed rule in April 2012, and the president indicated that the EPA would finalize the rule soon.

Limiting emissions from existing power plants is more difficult, as these facilities vary widely in age and emission levels, and needs vary from state to state. The Clean Air Act provision addressing performance standards for existing facilities—specifically, Section 111(d)—calls for a partnership between the EPA and state governments under which the EPA identifies an emission target, then states design and implement the performance standards that are subject to the agency’s approval.   

The EPA and the states have regulated air pollutants under this particular section of the law just a handful of times. The combination of limited precedent and the statute’s general language provides the EPA with a broad array of options for setting the emission target and evaluating the adequacy of state plans to achieve it. The EPA and the states can explore a range of cost-effective schemes for limiting emissions, empowering states to choose those that are most appropriate for their existing fleet of power plants and economic situations. Under the best-case scenario, states could develop models that would inform future federal policies.

The impact of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan will depend on its implementation—levels of stringency, which facilities are covered, the range of regulatory options available to the states, among other things—as well as the political environment. These details will become clear over time. For now, it is significant that the president has articulated why the nation must address climate change and provided a detailed pragmatic vision for getting started.