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Obama: U.S. Should Lead Assault on Climate Change


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. President Obama announced a plan this week calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate how much carbon power plants are allowed to emit. He had tried and failed to get Congress to act on climate change from the very first days of his presidency. This week in a speech at Georgetown University, he announced it was time to take matters into his own hands.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock. It demands our attention now. And this is my plan to meet it, a plan to cut carbon pollution, a plan to protect our country from the impacts of climate change and a plan to lead the world in a coordinated assault on a changing climate.


FLATOW: Is it really possible for the U.S., long considered a foot-dragger on international climate negotiations, to become a world leader on climate change. And how far can the president go without the help of Congress? Can his plan even put a dent in our emissions? What do you think? We're taking a poll on our website. Are you satisfied with what you heard in President Obama's plan? You can go to sciencefriday.com/climate, sciencefriday.com/climate, to let us know.

In the meantime, we're going to talk to David Roberts. He is senior staff writer covering energy and climate change for Grist.org in Seattle. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Mr. Roberts.

DAVID ROBERTS: Hi Ira, thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Can you give us a - what are the main basic points of President Obama's plan that he outlined?

ROBERTS: Well, you mentioned the upcoming EPA regulations on power plants, but actually that's only one of probably two dozen individual provisions in the plan. It's sort of a - it's Bill Clintonesque in that it is kind of laundry list of small-bore actions. They're grouped in three categories.

One is cutting carbon pollution. One is adaptation, as they call it, which means preparing for the effects of climate change. And the third is international engagement on this issue. And under each of those headings there are four or five pieces.

FLATOW: Can he do this without the cooperation of Congress?

ROBERTS: Yes, this is - I think the way to look at this plan is it's sort of a canvas of what's possible using the executive branch only. I think he has tried and tried with Congress, and it has become very clear that Republicans in Congress are totally unwilling to acknowledge the problem, much less do anything about it. So I think in that sense the document is remarkable in that it is really a thorough, a thorough sort of scan of the executive branch, how it engages with carbon and climate and tweaks in almost every part of it.

So everything in the - nothing in the plan requires congressional action. So yes, theoretically it's all possible.

FLATOW: But there are no numbers in the plan.

ROBERTS: Well, there are numbers here and there. The big number is, you know, remember in the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, I think it was, Obama promised to meet this short-term target, which is 17 percent carbon reductions from 2005 levels by 2020. And this is what the administration says it's trying to do with this plan.

And, you know, lots of the effects of some of this stuff are very hard to predict. But they are saying that they are going to get to that 17 percent number, or at least really close to it. So that's the big number. And there are some more. There are individual numbers throughout the plan. But it is - a lot of it is very sort of bureaucratic stuff.

There's a lot of working groups. There's a lot of pulling people together, disseminating best practices. And it's just hard to sort of - it's hard to predict numerically what's going to come out of that.

FLATOW: And all that stuff takes a lot of time, the comment periods, as you say, the meetings with utilities, refinements of the proposals. The president, does he have any real hope of seeing any of these regulations actually having gone into effect before he leaves office?

ROBERTS: Sure, a lot of it he can do quickly, and a lot of it, I should note, a lot of it is already underway. I mean, a lot of this plan that he released is sort of look at this thing we're already doing. So some of this stuff is already underway. In terms of the big piece you highlighted, which is the EPA power plant regulations, alongside the plan he issued a memo, a presidential memorandum to the EPA, which laid out a timeline for these regulations.

And if EPA meets that timeline, then there will be final proposals on these regulations issued before he leaves office. Of course that's a big if because these things are difficult, and EPA has missed deadlines before, but it's worth saying that a presidential memo specifically laying out a timeline is much more powerful and hard to get around than the sort of fuzzier deadlines of the past. So there's some chance.

FLATOW: That's a pretty bold prediction to say that this country, which does not have a reputation for being number one at any of the climate control meetings, to say it's going to become number one now or the leader.

ROBERTS: Well, on the international piece, it's interesting, there's sort of two schools of thought. One is to continue pursuing this UNFCCC process, which brings all the countries of the world together and tries to create one grand, binding document to bind them all. And the Obama administration has more or less given up on that process. That's what people say they're dragging their feet on.

And I think it's true that they don't find that process fruitful. What they're turning to instead is sort of focusing on the big emitters and doing these sort of bilateral or multilateral deals on specific issues. So it's more a stepwise, you know, pieces here rather than trying to go for the big brass ring.

FLATOW: The president also made some remarks about the Keystone Pipeline, which - is it not true that they were not in his prepared statements that were released?

ROBERTS: Well, it's interesting, I was on a call with senior administration officials the day before the plan. They were previewing the plan and the speech, and there was nothing said about Keystone. As a matter of fact, they were asked about Keystone, and they said specifically no, he won't say anything about that.

So clearly, whatever it was was added late in the game, which is really interesting to imagine why because what he said on Keystone was so sort of ambiguous that everybody's kind of reading their own interpretation into it. So it's puzzling to me what the political logic was for bringing that up since it mostly just serves to distract from the other stuff.

FLATOW: What did he say basically, that he...

ROBERTS: Well, he said that if building the Keystone pipeline would increase net carbon emissions, then it's not in our national interest. And that's going to be a key part of his decision. But of course the whole argument about Keystone all along has been whether it will in fact increase emissions because, you know, Keystone supporters say if you don't build that pipeline, they're just going to dig up the oil and ship it off some other direction, and it's going to get burned anyway, and net, net, there will be the same amount of carbon emissions.

So, you know, saying that's going to be part of his determination doesn't really add anything new to the discussion and is - sort of this gnomic quality to the way he said it has everybody in the - everybody in the energy world is now saying oh, he agreed with me, he's going to do my thing. So that was a puzzling episode, I thought.

FLATOW: The president has beaten a drum over the years of his administration about the need to develop new green technologies that will create green jobs, that will put people back to work, that will boost the economy. Will these proposed regulations act to stimulate any of those ideas?

ROBERTS: Yes, yes, I would say yes they will and not just the EPA regulations, but there's a lot more in there where he's pumping money into research, pumping money into adaptation measures. One big piece is the federal government itself is aiming to get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

And so that's going to - so all this, you know, there's this whole network of businesses that provide the federal government with stuff, and setting that target is going to spur all those businesses to innovate and develop new ways of providing the government with that energy. So even that piece alone, if he had announced that piece in isolation, that would be a big deal.

And that's true of a lot of the pieces of the plan. The individual pieces are actually quite significant, but they're sort of blurred together in this one big document.

FLATOW: As someone who covers energy and climate change, was there anything left out that you expected to hear?

ROBERTS: There was a big piece left out, although I expected it to be left out, and I just actually wrote about a post about this today. The big missing piece is coal in the Pacific Northwest, which is, you know, the Powder River Basin up in Wyoming and Montana is a huge coal field, and it's on public land. So the public is leasing that coal to private companies, who are now proposing to ship it over to the West Coast and export it to China.

And that whole process, digging it up, shipping it and then burning it in China, is going to be a huge net addition to greenhouse gases, and an inspector general report just found that the whole coal leasing program is corrupt. They're not getting market rates. They're not doing competitive bidding. I mean, the whole situation up there is a mess, and it's a big piece of the carbon puzzle, too. And I think that Obama really needs to turn his attention in that direction.

FLATOW: Now we were just out in Seattle with the program, and the mayor of Seattle was on this show. And again, he was talking about how they were trying to block that shippage of coal that might go through Seattle and the whole Pacific Northwest.

ROBERTS: It's a huge fight up in the Pacific Northwest right now, in Oregon, in Washington, in all these little towns. They're going to have literally dozens and dozens of coal trains a day coming through these little towns, which are known for being sort of bucolic tourist destinations.

So - and the whole thing that activists are trying to do and that the mayor of Seattle is trying to do and that the governors of Washington and Oregon are trying to do is kind of nationalize the thing to get a big - to get an overall assessment of the project. And the Army Corps of Engineers, just a few days ago, refused to do a comprehensive assessment.

And in my view, that's Obama's Army Corps of Engineers, and if he wanted to, he could go down there and kick them in the rump and tell them to get on it. So that's what I think was left out of the speech.

FLATOW: He is the commander in chief. So what will tell us, as an observer, what signs might we look for to see if this is progressing, how it's progressing?

ROBERTS: The big thing is whether EPA meets the schedule that he laid out in his memo. And the first piece of that would be in September. They're supposed to re-propose regulations for a new power plant. So it'll be good to keep eyes on the EPA. But the interesting thing about this, because it's not legislation, because it's not going through Congress, a lot of this stuff just goes on behind public view.

It's just sort of bureaucratic stuff that goes on within federal agencies, and so it's a lot - in a sense it's very difficult for the public to know it's happening, which has its good and bad aspects. I mean, I think in one sense Obama wanted this plan to kind of come and go in the news cycle and not to be a big focus and not to draw a lot of attention because everything he's doing he can do just fine without the public being involved or knowing and without Congress knowing or being involved. It's just kind of puttering along behind the scenes.

So, you know, it's going to take some good reporting, I think, and journalism to really dig down into the bowels of the bureaucracy and make sure that this stuff is actually happening.

FLATOW: All right, David Roberts, we'll be in touch with you to see what's happening. Thank you very much for joining us.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

FLATOW: David Roberts is a senior writer covering energy and climate change for the Grist.org in Seattle. We asked you to poll on our website. Are you satisfied with what you heard in the president's plan? So far 50 percent said - 54 percent said no, that was the top. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. Don't go away.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.