Climate change is slowly returning to the campaign conversation. After essentially ignoring the issue all year, President Obama has finally begun to explicitly address the dangers of fossil-fuel emissions warming the atmosphere, a phenomenon that an overwhelming majority of scientists agree will have grave consequences—some of which are already evident in the form of extreme droughts, increased flooding, and more-devastating storms. At an Oct. 11 rally in Miami, Obama said, “And, by the way, my plan will reduce the climate pollution that’s heating our planet. Because climate change is not a hoax … it’s a threat to our children’s future.”
The problem with the president’s plan is that there isn’t one. He hasn’t offered any specifics on how he would combat climate change should he win a second term. During the 2008 campaign, Obama talked about the issue frequently. Then, in soaring rhetoric, he promised to slow the rise of the oceans. And in a detailed policy proposal, he laid out exactly how he would do that: Urge Congress to pass a cap-and-trade plan that would limit emissions of carbon pollution, make polluters such as coal plants and oil refineries pay the federal government for permits to pollute, and set up a market in which companies could buy and sell the pollution permits.
The plan, of course, was torpedoed in Congress. Cap-and-trade became politically toxic, and when the solar company Solyndra went bankrupt and faced an FBI probe after receiving $535 million in federal loan guarantees, the well was poisoned for any major new government spending on clean energy.
So if those two strategies are nonstarters, what is it exactly that Obama could do in a second term to combat climate change? The options are limited—and also fraught with political risk.
After Congress failed to pass cap-and-trade, Obama took matters into his own hands. He used the executive authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to roll out regulations to force polluters such as coal plants to limit their emissions, and he struck a deal with auto companies requiring them to build new cars with much higher fuel efficiency and less tailpipe pollution. The regulations will help the U.S. lower its carbon emissions (although not, scientists warn, enough to stave off environmental disaster). But they came at a steep price: EPA became the top target in GOP fusillades against government regulation, and the “war on coal” has emerged as a potent campaign theme that could cost Obama the election.
Nonetheless, it’s almost certain that if he does win a second term, the president would continue to use EPA to lower the nation’s carbon pollution, and the agency would probably act even more aggressively than it already has. Earlier this year, EPA proposed regulations that would force companies to slash carbon pollution from any new coal-fired power plants—an action that has helped to freeze construction plans for such plants.
In a second Obama term, EPA would be expected to put out a second round of rules, this time limiting pollution from existing plants. Those regulations would have a major real-world economic and environmental impact, forcing some coal plants to invest in expensive new technology to cut pollution, and they could even force companies to shut down some plants. But given the importance of coal mining and cheap coal-powered electricity in the crucial 2012 swing states of Colorado, Ohio, and Virginia, it’s not surprising that neither the White House nor EPA has offered details about the agency’s next round of climate rules.
In Congress, which will likely remain divided between a Democratic Senate and a Republican House, the chances of moving any kind of comprehensive climate-change legislation appear, at first blush, to be nil. But advocates say they see one big opportunity in the coming year: Congress is expected to take up a sweeping tax-reform proposal. And as conversations around Washington start revving about what will be included in that deal, one idea keeps popping up: a tax on carbon pollution, paired with a cut somewhere else, such as the payroll tax or income tax.
Environmentalists love the idea because putting a price on carbon drives consumers and industry away from polluting energy and toward low-carbon energy. And conservative economists like it, too: Gregory Mankiw, an adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign; Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the economist who advised John McCain’s presidential campaign; and Art Laffer, a senior economist with the Reagan administration, are all big fans. Many Republicans wouldn’t embrace a new tax on pollution, but they would love to lower taxes on income. A September report from the Congressional Research Service, meanwhile, found that a carbon tax on its own could reduce the federal deficit between 10 and 50 percent.
Political strategists say, however, that the surest way for Obama to doom the carbon tax is to talk about it, especially as climate policy. For the idea to have any chance of survival in Congress, it will probably have to come from a Republican and be dressed up as fiscal, not environmental, reform.
“The ideal starting point is for it to be a Republican idea,” said former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., who supports climate policy and now lobbies his onetime colleagues on environmental issues. “The president has to walk gingerly. The sell has to be done very carefully. The wrong thing for the president to do would be to warmly embrace the idea at the start.”
Early in President Clinton’s first term, Vice President Al Gore unsuccessfully pushed for a tax on each Btu, or British thermal unit, of energy consumed. “When Gore tried the Btu tax on climate grounds, it was a disaster,” said Paul Bledsoe, a policy consultant who served as communications director of the White House Climate Change Task Force under Clinton. “A carbon tax has to be sold on economic, fiscal, and budget grounds—not as climate policy.”
For Obama to get a policy solution he really wants on global warming, he may have to stay—in public, at least—as far away from the conversation as possible. In this case, the man who promised change can’t be its agent.
This article originally appeared in print as "Climate Silence."
This article appears in the October 20, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.