President Obama tells Congress: do something about climate change, or I’ll take matters into my own hands. Here’s how.
So, Congresspeople, you probably noticed that in President Obama’s big speech last night, he talked a bit about how dysfunctional you’ve become. The thing is, we’re sure the president would still really like to work with you. He believes in in the whole reaching-across-the-aisle thing (see above), although it’s clear that he’s also had enough obfuscation on vital issues like creating jobs and reducing gun violence. Nowhere did he make that clearer than on global warming, proclaiming: “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
In other words, Congress, he’ll do it with or without you. But really, wouldn’t it be better if you were on board? Here’s a quick look at how tackling climate change could look if you’re willing to work with the president -- and if not, what he can accomplish anyway:
Reducing Power Plant Pollution
With you: Obama urged Congress to “pursue a bipartisan market-based solution to climate change like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.” What did he mean by that? Three words: cap and trade. Back when Republicans and Democrats could still find ways to work together (and when Joe Lieberman was still a Democrat), the two senators spearheaded legislation that would have imposed limits on global warming emissions (the cap) and allowed polluters to exchange allowances and credits (the trade). The then-Democratic controlled House passed the bill, but it died in the Senate. Want to give it another try?
Without you: If not, the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth) has laid out how, using its authority under the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could set carbon pollution limits for existing power plants, America’s largest source of global warming emissions. NRDC says its plan would cut carbon dioxide emissions 26 percent (using 2005 levels as a baseline) by 2020 and even more into the future. The price tag in 2020: about $4 billion. But the benefits -- in saved lives, reduced illnesses, and climate change avoided -- would be $26 billion to $60 billion, according to this same proposal. A bargain, right?
Making Buildings More Efficient
With you: Energy efficiency is something that many Republicans can already get behind, in some form or another. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s proposed drill-everywhere energy policy unveiled last week even includes a nod toward it, calling for “efficiency retrofits” and more incentives for landlords to cut energy use (but with no government mandates or funding, mind you). Maybe you good folks in Congress could see fit to dump the drill-in-coastal-waters-and-protected-wilderness portions of her proposal and focus on the efficiency-encouraging ones. Others proposed by the Alliance to Save Energy include revamping the tax code to reward efficient technologies and increasing federal dollars for research and development.
Without you: Obama issued a specific goal on this one, saying “let's cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years. We'll work with the states to do it. Those states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make that happen.” So if Congress won’t embrace energy efficiency, the president says he’ll find ways to help states that will. And as with power plant pollution, many of the regulations that would require greater efficiency, including in household appliances and the like, could come from the Department of Energy and other federal agencies on their own.
Cutting Methane Emissions
With you: One of the (many) negative side effects of the U.S. natural gas boom is an increase in methane emissions. Like carbon dioxide, methane is a heat-trapping greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Requiring natural gas-fired power plants to be more efficient, and passing legislation that prevents drillers from burning off methane at the source (a process that can be seen from space), would help lower global warming pollution.
Without you: Again, Obama doesn’t need Congress to pass a law; his EPA can simply issue regulations that require fewer methane emissions from fracking operations. The agency has already done it and could tighten up the rules even more.
Phasing Out Hydroflourocarbons
With you: Man that’s a big word. Marco Rubio might need to take a swig of water just to get through that word. Seriously, though, HFCs are bad because they damage the ozone layer and contribute to climate change. Some have already been phased out, but others are still hanging around. Why not just ban the ones that are still causing harm? All it requires is agreeing to amend the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement adopted in 1989 as a way of fixing the damage to earth’s ozone layer.
Without you: Got a thing for HFCs, Congress? Fine, the EPA can again use its authority under the Clean Air Act to phase them out in U.S. products. But wouldn’t it be nice if the whole world were with us?
There are other things Obama could do without you, as well, Congress: even tighter emission controls and fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, reductions in pollution from aircraft and ships, new standards for industrial facilities … all achieved through agency regulations. Kind of a lot, right? But really, he could still use your help. As Slate sums up:
The sad fact is that without Congress’ help, the president can’t get the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases to a level that won’t cause major problems in the lifetime of today’s first-graders. “The scope of the problem,” says Nicholas Bianco of the World Resource Institute, who has studied the U.S. executive’s power over emissions, “is too enormous not to have Congress taking an active role. The science is quite clear that we cannot delay.”
Polls show that a wide majority of Americans want action on climate. So why make the president go it alone? Especially when he’d rather do it with you.
Thanks to: Paul Tullis at Slate, David Roberts at Grist, Brad Plumer at Wonkblog, Center for American Progress, World Resources Institute, NRDC’s Dan Lashof.