President Obama will try "depoliticizing" the issue of climate change, his top aide on the issue said yesterday, raising questions about how that can be achieved as his administration appears poised to pursue embattled regulations on carbon.
To some observers, the assertion yesterday by Heather Zichal, Obama's deputy assistant for energy and climate change, suggests the president might be planning to launch an appeal to the American people. He's been asked by various groups to hold a summit-like event that showcases support from businesses, faith groups and scientists.
"Frankly, that's what I think you'll be seeing from the president and members of his Cabinet -- is to focus on depoliticizing the climate on climate policy," Zichal said yesterday at an event hosted by The New Republic magazine. "We know we can do this. And we know that ... the solutions to tackle greenhouse gas emissions can garner bipartisan support and build on Americans' innovative spirit."
Zichal listed a number of climate-related initiatives by Republican state lawmakers to make the point that they are "climate realists." She pointed to efforts by Texas Republicans to conserve water, a Utah senator's attempt to increase funding to fight wildfires and a lawsuit by a GOP lawmaker in Georgia to make his electric utility increase its solar power generation.
"The fact is, Washington needs to catch up to the rest of the nation on this issue," Zichal said. "Most Americans have stopped debating the reality of climate change and are thinking [about] how to protect communities from its costly impacts -- independents, Democrats and Republicans alike."
To some, however, the idea that Obama's forthcoming speech on climate policy might link post-partisanship with an announcement around U.S. EPA carbon standards on power plants, potentially both new and existing, seems out of tune. Those regulations stand to ignite fierce opposition from many conservative lawmakers.
"I think often what the president tends to mean when he says depoliticize is de-Congress things," said Andrew Moylan, outreach director for the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank that supports enacting a carbon tax in return for diminished EPA regulations and lower income taxes.
"I think that there's a growing sense, and frankly it's not entirely fair, among conservatives that there's unilateral action coming on a great many fronts," he added. "That's something that tends to politicize rather than depoliticize."
It's unclear what Obama will propose in the coming weeks, but Zichal suggested that existing policies around renewable energy on public land and energy efficiency standards for appliances could be expanded.
She also pointed to the Clean Air Act in what observers believe is a prologue to plans to regulate greenhouse gases at new and existing power plants. Both of those steps are already supported by court rulings.
"It's not a surprise, but it is significant," Joe Kruger, director for energy and environment at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said of the anticipated regulations.
Even if Obama's rollout, which Zichal said will occur "in the weeks ahead," is without mystery, its details are still important, Kruger said. It's unclear whether Obama will release completed carbon rules for new power plants.
Likewise, it's unknown whether he'll sketch out a detailed formula for curbing emissions at existing plants or just suggest it needs to be done, Kruger said. Those scheduling subtleties could take on new importance as time ticks by, because Obama will "need every minute" of his second term to complete the complicated carbon rules, he added.
If Obama does emphasize electric utility carbon standards in his strategy rollout, it could intersect with the highly partisan debate around Gina McCarthy's nomination for EPA administrator. Some observers believe the president might wait to deliver his climate speech until after McCarthy's Senate confirmation, though that might require a long wait.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, indicated that Democrats will renew their push for McCarthy's confirmation after the Fourth of July break. She promised to make McCarthy, who's worked for Republicans and Democrats, the "poster child" for bipartisanship.
"We're gonna battle it," Boxer said yesterday.
The 'hopeless' Congress
As the day's politics were playing out in Washington, D.C., Obama was reassuring Europeans that the United States "will do more" to counteract climate change, because "this must now be an effort of all nations, not just some."
"For the grim alternative affects all nations -- more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise," Obama said yesterday in Berlin. "This is the future we must avert. This is the global threat of our time. And for the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate before it is too late. That is our job. That is our task. We have to get to work."
The task that Obama faces now is convincing some that his climate plan is more than just bluster. One official in the electric utility industry says plant owners are already preparing for carbon standards on new and existing facilities. He sees the president's upcoming climate speech as showmanship rather than true policymaking.
"These are all things that have already passed," said the official, who asked not to be named. "They're taking hold. So what he's trying to do is get the narrative out there, so he can get ahead of it when they start [to be implemented.]"
Others believe the regulations are the beginning of a broader strategy: Once they're imposed, utilities will ask lawmakers for legislation, like cap and trade or a carbon tax, to ease their burden, they say. Some conservative think tanks, like R Street, believe Republicans could gravitate toward a carbon tax if it pre-empts EPA regulations on carbon.
Boxer, who's co-sponsoring a carbon tax bill with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), didn't close that door yesterday.
"Everything's on the table when it comes to fighting climate," Boxer said when asked about pre-empting regulations.
But that view has lost its luster with John Podesta, a former chief of staff for President Clinton and founder of the Center for American Progress.
"I think the Congress is so hopeless, they can do so little, they're so bound to the status quo, that even if the industry came together with a serious proposal [for pricing carbon], it would really shock me that the House of Representatives could process it and pass it -- even if there was no opposition," he said.