The least expected but most fanciful moment in President Obama’s State of the Union address came less than halfway through when he called on Congress to revive a long-dead bipartisan consensus in favor of addressing climate change.
“I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago,” he said. “But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
This was his most full-throated and specific call to action since a comprehensive climate change bill died in the Senate early in Obama’s first term. What’s changed, of course, is that in the intervening years, the House turned Republican, creating an impassable choke point for any significant environmental legislation.
But that hasn’t stopped liberal Democrats in Congress from using the address as a jumping off point for advancing climate change legislation and more broadly trying to place global warming at the center of a debate terrain currently crowded with issues like immigration reform, gun control, and deficit reduction. That may sound like wishful thinking. But if anything the members leading the effort are much more clear-eyed now than they were in 2009 and 2010 about the possibility of congressional action and their best hope for making progress on the issue.
“Go ahead, start acting on these issues,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) urged President Obama in a Friday phone interview with TPM. “[I]f he moves forward in a broad array of measures, that will encourage industry to push the Republicans to legislate. But I don’t think we should have a waiting game for Congress to act or for industries to push Congress. We’ve been in a waiting game for decades … it’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
Waxman, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, co-authored the cap-and-trade bill to regulate carbon emissions that passed the House in 2009, Last week Waxman and other Democrats announced the creation of that they are calling the “Safe Climate Caucus” in the House, whose members plan to talk about the issue of climate change each day on the floor of the House.
But Waxman knows that a House controlled by Speaker John Boehner isn’t going to respond to urgent requests to prioritize climate change.
“If the president wants to impose a cap-and-trade national energy tax, I encourage Senate Democrats to take it up,” Boehner said at his weekly Capitol briefing Thursday.
Until that changes though, Waxman says Obama ought to use his administrative powers aggressively to regulate the country’s worst greenhouse gas polluters.
“The EPA is required to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act,” Waxman said. “They’ve already proposed a rule to limit the pollution from new power plants, and they could also issue regulations dealing with existing power plants, as well as oil refineries. The Department of Energy can issue efficiency standards for household appliances. That would deal with greenhouse gases as well as saving consumers a lot of money.”
Daniel J. Weiss, a climate expert at the liberal Center for American Progress supports these and other options. Weiss and his colleagues have put together a top ten list of environmental priorities for Obama, only half of which require Congressional action.
“Power plants represent about one-third of all greenhouse gases in the U.S.,” Weiss said in a phone interview Friday. “The second largest [step] is to take HFCs [hydrofluorocarbons] and include them in the Montreal Protocol so we can begin to phase them out worldwide.”
Supporters of climate legislation want him to act on them quickly, though industry heavyweights and GOP allies will attempt to block these actions in court.
“I don’t think he has the ability to impose a national energy tax on Americans without the authority of Congress. He may attempt to do this, but I’m not sure how much he can really do,” Boehner said.
Waxman thinks Boehner’s in for a surprise, with the legal framework now firmly established by the Supreme Court for the EPA to regulate carbon emissions.
“He’s mistaken. Maybe he’s expressing some wishful thinking on his part,” Waxman told me. “The Supreme Court of the United States said that the EPA must regulate if it makes a finding that carbon pollution is a threat to public health and the environment. They’ve made that finding. In fact even the EPA during George W. Bush’s administration made that finding but the Bush administration refused to accept it. I don’t think the Supreme Court’s going to reverse itself because the EPA does what the Supreme Court tells them it must do.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.