Obama’s Playing the Long Game on Climate

And in every realm, from politics to policy to his personal legacy, time is on his side.

President Obama running in 2008.
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Lucia Graves
June 4, 2014, 1 a.m.

When Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced Monday that he’d use his ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity to cut emis­sions from ex­ist­ing coal-fired power plants, Re­pub­lic­ans rubbed their hands to­geth­er and Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell dubbed it a “dag­ger in the heart of the middle class.”

In the short term, what Obama’s do­ing makes little sense. It could hurt his party polit­ic­ally (though that’s not, as I noted the oth­er day, ne­ces­sar­ily the case). It will drive up en­ergy costs. It will kill jobs for blue-col­lar Amer­ic­ans. And in coal coun­try, it will make people hate him like their live­li­hoods de­pend on it.

In the long term, it’s the right thing to do for the plan­et. Now, lib­er­ated by reelec­tion and with an eye on his leg­acy, Obama’s will­ing to ab­sorb that polit­ic­al heat to ac­com­plish some long-term goals.

That rolling this out ahead of the 2014 elec­tions could hurt vul­ner­able Demo­crats is prac­tic­ally a giv­en. But, as The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Greg Sar­gent ob­served, Demo­crats see it as part of a much longer battle that will ex­tend in­to the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race and bey­ond, paint­ing the GOP as the “anti-sci­ence party” among young voters, an in­creasinly im­port­ant vot­ing block in na­tion­al elec­tions. In­deed, as the “co­ali­tion of the as­cend­ant” grows, and as the power of coal coun­try shrinks, the polit­ics will in­creas­ingly be on Obama’s side.

Yet the lar­ger point is that Obama is not fol­low­ing the polit­ic­al cal­en­dar at all. He’s fol­low­ing the reg­u­lat­ory cal­en­dar. Rolling out the pro­pos­al now is not a polit­ic­al de­cision, but a bur­eau­crat­ic one, since the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency needs time for a pub­lic com­ment peri­od.

The new rules, de­signed to cut car­bon emis­sions as much as 30 per­cent by 2030, con­sti­tute the strongest ac­tion ever taken by an Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent to tackle cli­mate change and will have a much great­er im­pact on the en­vir­on­ment than the much-hyped Key­stone pipeline.

The move won’t have no­tice­able im­pacts on the cli­mate for some time — the rules won’t even be fi­nal­ized un­til June of 2015 — but it could well be cru­cial to a broad­er glob­al plan.

None of this sounds par­tic­u­larly en­ti­cing to any­one ask­ing, “How will this af­fect me now?” But the White House hasn’t giv­en up on craft­ing a PR pitch to those voters either. In his weekly ad­dress, Obama said the reg­u­la­tions would pre­vent up to 100,000 asthma at­tacks and 2,100 heart at­tacks in the first year alone; the EPA has driv­en home sim­il­ar points. The pub­lic-health mes­saging is a bit mis­lead­ing since the be­ne­fits aren’t dir­ectly tied to cut­ting car­bon, but rather to cut­ting the pol­lut­ants that hitch a ride with car­bon on the way out of coal plant smokestacks. But an­cil­lary be­ne­fits (or co-be­ne­fits as they’re some­times called) are still be­ne­fits. And the White House is right to hype them.

Taken to­geth­er, the new cli­mate reg­u­la­tions are the sort of ac­com­plish­ment that could, along with the Af­ford­able Care Act, come to define Obama’s leg­acy. And over at New York magazine, Jonath­an Chait has been mak­ing the case for some time.

The pres­id­ent him­self has been more subtle about it. Back in Janu­ary, Obama spoke little about cli­mate change in his State of the Uni­on ad­dress, though reg­u­la­tions on coal-fired power plants would fea­ture prom­in­ently in his second term.

And when he does talk about it, he doesn’t dis­cuss polit­ic­al ex­pedi­ency, or ex­pedi­ency of any sort. After all, a pre-SOTU poll showed the Amer­ic­an pub­lic was per­fectly happy to have Obama not do a thing about the en­vir­on­ment in 2014. Spe­cific­ally, the NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll found that only 27 per­cent of re­spond­ents said ad­dress­ing cli­mate change should be an “ab­so­lute pri­or­ity” for 2014, while 41 per­cent said ac­tion can be put off un­til next year (for con­trast, 91 per­cent said cre­at­ing jobs should be an “ab­so­lute pri­or­ity” for the year).

In­stead Obama’s op­ted to frame cli­mate as an is­sue of con­science. “When our chil­dren’s chil­dren look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of en­ergy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did,” Obama said in the brief sec­tion of his 2014 State of the Uni­on ad­dress ded­ic­ated to cli­mate. It’s a line that dis­tills how the op­tim­ist­ic chants of his 2008 cam­paign have turned to thoughts of the leg­acy he’ll leave be­hind.

He’s made his bid to be­come the en­vir­on­ment­al pres­id­ent. And there are many act­ors who could still thwart him (in some sense, he’s already been thwarted in the fail­ure of the Wax­man-Mar­key en­ergy bill of 2009). But in find­ing a way around Con­gress and its flawed pro­cess, he’s made a play at re­writ­ing the polit­ic­al his­tory of cli­mate change, a text­book ex­ample of a place where Demo­cracy fails.


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