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Science & Environment

White House Climate Change Policy Faces Legal Hurdle

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Today is Earth Day - the 46th Earth Day, to be exact. And in a moment, we'll hear how this observance got its name. First, how the White House is using this date to highlight threats posed by climate change. President Obama marked Earth Day with a visit to the Everglades.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Part of the reason we're here is because climate change is threatening this treasure and the communities that depend on it, which includes almost all of South Florida. And if we don't act, there may not be an Everglades as we know it.

BLOCK: Brian Deese is the president's senior adviser in charge of climate policy, and he joins me now, welcome to the program.

BRIAN DEESE: Happy to be here.

BLOCK: You sent out an email today to mark Earth Day, and one of the things you wrote is this. (Reading) We are far beyond a debate about climate change's existence.

But that debate does seem to be very much alive politically, if not scientifically. So how do you push beyond the climate skeptics and deniers?

DEESE: Well, I think if you look at the overwhelming body of science, it is clear that climate change is happening. It's influenced by human activity. Increasingly there is an acceptance in the public that that's the case. And so what we're trying to do is just be clear that we should be not spending our time on debates of the past and instead focused on concrete solutions to address this issue before it's too late.

You know, one of the things that's interesting in our work is that when you get out of Washington D.C., these issues are overwhelmingly practical and not partisan. Whether it's the farmers in the West that are trying to figure out how to adapt to increasing instances of drought or communities on the coastline that are trying to prepare for increased incidence of storms like Hurricane Sandy, these communities are focused on what they can do pragmatically right now. And I think increasingly what you're going to see is that the members of the public force a debate around those pragmatic issues and move beyond some of this sort of stale partisan rhetoric on this issue.

BLOCK: The president's climate push focuses to a great extent on EPA restrictions around power plant emissions, and that has come under appeal. It looks like there's going to be a very long legal battle over the constitutionality of those regulations. Do you expect that that's something you won't see resolved before President Obama leaves office?

DEESE: We feel very confident about the legal basis on which EPA is operating. The Clean Air Act is a statute that has been used for decades. And if this rule goes into effect, we anticipate that we would reduce 150,000 asthma attacks in kids every year. We would reduce up to 6,600 premature deaths. So this is about the health and the well-being of the American people. We feel very confident that we can make progress, and we're going to continue to do so.

BLOCK: I was struck by comments by the solicitor general of West Virginia, who's one of the states that's fighting these EPA regulations, who said this in the appeals court hearing - he said, this is about fundamentally reordering the way we use energy from plant to plug. And I wonder if you agree with him on that?

DEESE: No, I don't agree with that characterization. Instead, I think that this is a straightforward application of existing statutes in a way that creates real economic opportunities at the state-by-state level.

BLOCK: One last question, we are still waiting for President Obama's decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. It's become a big symbol in the climate change fight. How important is the question of that pipeline - whether it's built or whether it's not built - to President Obama's environmental legacy?

DEESE: Well, that issue is currently at the State Department, as you know, and I won't comment on that process as it unfolds. I will say that as we think about having a debate in this country about what we need to do to upgrade our infrastructure, we should be setting our sights higher than a debate about a single pipeline, and it should instead be looking at how to address the broad infrastructure challenges we have across the country.

BLOCK: Do you think that the Keystone XL pipeline has gotten too much attention in terms of the real effects of climate change and the impact here in the United States or does it seem about right to you?

DEESE: I guess, as I said, I think the focus of our conversations and the focus of our efforts should be on how to address these issues comprehensively.

BLOCK: Brian Deese, thanks so much for talking with us.

DEESE: Thank you.

BLOCK: Brian Deese is President Obama's senior adviser in charge of climate policy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.