Obama Puts the Planet Before Midterm Politics

Obama Puts the Planet Before Midterm Politics

By Bill Scher - June 2, 2014

Of the top 10 most competitive Senate races involving seats currently held by Democrats, half involve states that are also in top 10 lists either for coal or oil production.  Any campaign consultant determined to help Democrats hold on to the Senate would advise: Stay the hell away from global warming.

Barack Obama is a president, not a political consultant.

Monday, he will commit one of the boldest acts of his presidency. Shrugging off the failure to persuade the Senate to pass climate legislation in his first term, his Environmental Protection Agency will formally propose regulations that will cap carbon emissions from power plants, the largest source of American greenhouse gases, bypassing Congress altogether.

You can expect that the reaction from prominent Republicans and assorted movement conservatives will put “death panel” rhetoric to shame. Not only are they certain to make wild claims about job losses and higher prices -- in fact, they’ve already started without having seen the actual proposal –--you’ll be able taste the outrage over the imperial president forcing these insidious regulations down our throats without a new vote in Congress (a claim that will ignore that the EPA will be acting based on an environmental law signed by a Republican president and applying it to carbon pollution, thanks to authority granted by a Republican-dominated Supreme Court).

And this will happen as the 2014 congressional primaries are winding down and the November general election campaigns are gearing up.

President Obama is aware of the potential for massive blowback, and he is doing it anyway. Why? The only plausible answer is the least cynical: The fate of the planet is more important to him than holding on the Senate.

He’s not looking at the election calendar, but the regulatory calendar. After today’s proposal, a public comment period is necessary before the EPA finalizes the rules, which is scheduled for June 2015. Then states need another year to submit plans for implementation, which the EPA aims to approve just in time before Obama leaves office. If he didn’t act today, the clock would run out.

He’s also looking at the United Nations calendar. The next U.N. climate summit is scheduled for December 2015 in Paris. And while conservatives are already complaining that the new package won’t cure global warming by itself, since America is acting unilaterally, such an argument only buttresses the case for following up with a global agreement. Other nations, including major polluter China, have said they are watching to see if Obama walks the walk before they will commit to such a deal.

And he’s looking at the climate clock. With the melting of the west Antarctic ice sheet now considered “unstoppable,” though at least slow-able, we are simply running out of time if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. This is not an issue that a responsible leader can punt to a successor.

That doesn’t mean Obama is writing off the Senate, or has no more use for political considerations. He may not need Congress to ratify the regulations. But he does need to prevent a right-wing backlash so strong that it turns the regulations toxic and sets the stage for a Republican in the White House to junk them in 2017. He will have to preside over a tricky two-step, combating conservative misinformation on the national stage while remaining mute as vulnerable Democrats near coal mines and oil fields show off their independence and take their pot shots.

The potential political risk is not hypothetical. Last year in Australia, the ruling Labor Party was thrown out of power by a conservative coalition pledging to scrap a new carbon tax, showing how politically explosive the climate issue can be. Obama’s regulations won’t be as far-reaching or rigid as a nationwide carbon tax -- they reportedly are designed to give states flexibility in their implementation, and the regulations won’t cover industries beyond power plants -- but policy nuances are often not easily articulated.

However, Obama may have an ace up his sleeve: support from executives of utilities, which are also about to be more tightly regulated.

Last week, buried in a New York Times preview of the new rules, are quotes from industry executives sounding supportive, particularly about the likelihood of state flexibility, including the option of “cap-and-trade” systems where utilities can buy and sell a finite number of pollution permits. “By trading on carbon credits, we’ll be able to achieve significantly more cuts at a lower cost,” said the CEO of FirstEnergy. “The broader the options, the better off we’re going to be.” Added a vice-president of American Electric Power: “We view cap-and-trade as having a lot of benefits. … It could keep the cost down.  It would allow us to keep coal units running for a more extended period.”

Obama has been able to deploy support from corporate executives in several instances to blunt conservative attacks and advance liberal goals. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed the stimulus. The pharmaceutical industry spent millions to pass Obamacare. Individual executives were trotted out to express comfort with repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. If, once again, Obama has some friendly executives in his back pocket, 2014 may be a lot less hot for the climate, and the Democrats.

Bill Scher is executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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