Obama’s Thankfully ‘Dictatorial’ Approach to Climate Change

How the president helped solve one of political theory’s biggest problems.

President Obama makes his way to board Marine One last month on the South Lawn of the White House.
National Journal
Lucia Graves
June 6, 2014, 1 a.m.

In col­lege classes, cli­mate change is taught as a text­book ex­ample of where demo­cracy fails. And there are a whole host of reas­ons to think Amer­ica will fail on cli­mate change: We’ve waited too long; the con­sequences aren’t as tan­gible as in oth­er areas of policy; we’re bad at sac­ri­fi­cing in the short term to achieve in the long term.

Pres­id­ent Obama, who on Monday rolled out land­mark reg­u­la­tions for coal-fired power plants, has found a way around that age-old polit­ic­al prob­lem posed by cli­mate change and demo­cra­cies, in part by act­ing a little bit more like a dic­tat­or. This is something he’s been skewered for on the right, with Rush Limbaugh ac­cus­ing the White House of fo­cus­ing on glob­al warm­ing just be­cause “it of­fers the pres­id­ent op­por­tun­it­ies to be dic­tat­ori­al.”

Limbaugh is onto something, but he has it pre­cisely back­ward: The de­cision to use ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity is the means, not the ends. It also makes a lot of sense when it comes to glob­al warm­ing giv­en Con­gress’s fail­ure to pass the Wax­man-Mar­key en­ergy bill in 2009, and, for dec­ades be­fore that, to pass any sort of com­pre­hens­ive cli­mate le­gis­la­tion what­so­ever.

If cli­mate change seems like a dif­fi­cult prob­lem to nav­ig­ate na­tion­ally, in­ter­na­tion­ally things get even more com­plic­ated. Es­teemed Brit­ish eco­nom­ist and aca­dem­ic Nich­olas Stern elab­or­ated on the di­lemma in the Stern Re­view, a 700-page re­port re­leased for the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment in 2006. No two coun­tries face ex­actly the same situ­ation in terms of im­pacts or the costs and be­ne­fits of ac­tion, he ob­served, and no coun­try can ef­fect­ively act alone. “In­ter­na­tion­al col­lect­ive ac­tion to tackle the prob­lem is re­quired be­cause cli­mate … is a glob­al pub­lic good,” he wrote, “and be­cause co­oper­at­ive ac­tion will greatly re­duce the costs of both mit­ig­a­tion and ad­ap­tion. The in­ter­na­tion­al col­lect­ive re­sponse to the cli­mate-change prob­lem re­quired is there­fore unique, both in terms of its com­plex­ity and depth.”

Daniel Esty, the Hill­house pro­fess­or of en­vir­on­ment­al law and policy at Yale, called the dic­tat­or ac­cus­a­tion “ut­terly ri­dicu­lous,” not­ing the pres­id­ent’s ac­tions are au­thor­ized un­der the Clean Air Act, as well as sanc­tioned by the Su­preme Court.

“The ap­proach that the pres­id­ent and EPA have put for­ward is thought­ful, mod­est, and rep­res­ents a com­mon­sense ap­proach to a chal­len­ging prob­lem,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al. The new reg­u­la­tions provide ample room for state-level in­nov­a­tion and tail­or­ing of ac­tion plans to loc­al cir­cum­stances, he ad­ded, but it’s by no means the best ap­proach to ad­dress­ing cli­mate change.

The best op­tion was already taken off the table and for reas­ons that have little to do with the ex­ec­ut­ive branch. “Giv­en that Con­gress has sys­tem­at­ic­ally failed to ad­dress cli­mate change for 20 years, the pres­id­ent and EPA need to take ac­tion with­in the scope of au­thor­ity they have,” ex­plained Esty, who worked for years as com­mis­sion­er of Con­necti­c­ut’s De­part­ment of En­ergy and En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion. “The pack­age they have put for­ward rep­res­ents a good first step.”

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