President Obama used his Inaugural Address and State of the Union speech to issue the boldest, clearest call to action on climate change ever voiced by a sitting U.S. president—but don’t expect him to barnstorm across the country with that message.
While the president will headline a road show of events to sell his crowd-friendly message on restoring the middle class and boosting U.S. manufacturing, climate change won’t get a starring role. It remains a politically inflammatory subject, and the White House communications team isn’t exactly eager to remind Americans how Obama plans to tackle the problem. The president has called on Congress to pass a climate-change bill, but it’s almost certain that any such legislation will expire in the gridlock of Capitol Hill. Instead, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue tough regulations on coal-fired power plants, the nation’s biggest source of global-warming pollution. That’s hardly the stuff of soaring rhetoric—and it’s sure to reignite Republicans’ 2012 campaign attacks that the president is abusing government authority and waging a war on coal.
But even though climate change won’t get top billing in Obama’s speeches, the White House is far from ignoring the issue; it’s just doing a different kind of outreach to build the case for its coming climate-change actions.
Inside Washington, in a warren of back rooms at EPA, dozens of environmental officials are working to craft landmark climate-change regulations that they hope will curb industrial pollution—and withstand a tsunami of legal and political attacks. To help them do it, they’re inviting in heads of the industries and businesses that will soon be forced to implement the rules. Business leaders, although they’re not happy about the coming regulations, are jumping on the opportunity to communicate their concerns and perhaps help shape the rules they’ll have to live by. And the Obama administration hopes that the dialogue will help defuse some of the opposition to come.
Outside Washington, the administration is building support a different way. The Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Agriculture departments are ramping up their outreach to state and local governments to help them prepare for the impacts of climate change, including increased flooding and more extreme storms and droughts. The local work by federal agencies doesn’t draw the headlines like a presidential speech. But it does further a grassroots communications strategy—by getting the conversation about preparing for climate change into town councils and city planning boards, where there’s less partisan fighting and more focus on practical challenges such as creating new flood zones and building storm-resistant infrastructure.
“This seems to me [to be] the beginning of a big-tent, grassroots climate strategy, which no administration has attempted in the U.S. before,” said Paul Bledsoe, an environmental-policy consultant who was a senior climate-change and communications adviser to the Clinton White House. “Climate strategies in the past have been declared from on high. That hasn’t been terrifically effective in mobilizing political support. But involving people in their communities, with state and local officials, who are concerned about impacts in terms of infrastructure and emergency services, could be more effective.”
EPA is preparing to issue a regulation to cut carbon pollution from future power plants later this spring—a rule that will effectively freeze construction of coal plants. After that, although it’s not clear when, the agency is expected to issue even more-aggressive regulations requiring existing coal plants to reduce their pollution. Gina McCarthy, EPA’s top clean-air and climate-change official, whom Obama is expected to nominate to head the environmental agency as soon as this week, has been working closely with coal and electric-utility officials to craft the regulations. The administration doesn’t expect the industry to welcome the rules—but it hopes the outreach will create some goodwill and at least lessen some of the inevitable push-back.
“Conversations have started,” said Chuck Barlow, vice president of environmental strategy for Entergy, an electric utility with power plants in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. “There have been small groups from industry who’ve gone in and had discussions with [McCarthy]. We’re talking about, if EPA does this, what will it look like? How flexible is it? Does EPA do most of the work, or the states? There will be much more to come.”
“We’re seeing more and more interest and activity from the federal agencies,” said Brian Holland, director of climate programs for ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA, an organization that works with municipal governments. “It started before superstorm Sandy and has really intensified since that disaster. We see a clear indication that climate-change resilience is at the top of the president’s agenda and that federal agencies are becoming more active in that area.”