Obama: This May Be ‘The Last Generation’ That Can Stop Climate Change
Policy + Politics

Obama: This May Be ‘The Last Generation’ That Can Stop Climate Change


President Obama on Monday formally unveiled his signature plan for dramatically reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants over the coming decade, and then immediately fired a salvo at his congressional and energy industry critics who have vowed to fight the new rules.

During an afternoon White House ceremony, Obama framed his controversial drive to reduce utility plant carbon emissions as part of a larger global struggle to preserve the environment and avert catastrophic weather and public health problems and economic chaos. After citing some of the toughest challenges his administration has faced, including the Great Recession and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama said, “No challenge poses a greater threat to our future than a changing climate.”

Related: Obama Warns of Costly Public Health Crisis Spurred by Climate Change

“As one of America’s governors has said, we’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it,” he said, quoting Washington State governor Jay Inslee. “And that’s why I committed the United States to leading the world on this challenge, because I believe there is such a thing as being too late.”

Global warming has long been at best a peripheral issue in major presidential and congressional campaigns, and it clearly took a back seat to the economy, immigration reform and a half dozen other issues in the 2012 presidential battle between Obama and former Republican governor Mitt Romney.

Now, as Republicans prepare for their first nationally televised presidential debate in Cleveland on Thursday, the fate of Obama’s new “Clean Power” initiative, construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the plight of the fast-declining coal industry and other environmental issues suddenly are acquiring increased political resonance.

Even before Obama spelled out the details of the new Environmental Protection Agency coal emission rules yesterday, a handful of the top tier Republican presidential candidates including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz teed off against the plan over the weekend.

The GOP presidential candidates took part in a weekend gathering at a posh southern California seaside resort with 450 deep-pocketed Republican donors. The elite event was hosted by David and Charles Koch, major backers of conservative and libertarian candidates and the owners of one of the nation’s largest oil, gas and chemical companies.

Related: Obama and Critics Battle Over Climate Change Costs

Bush described the new EPA rules as “irresponsible and overreaching” during his presentation on Sunday, according to The New York Times. “The rule runs over state governments, will throw countless people out of work, and increase everyone’s energy prices.” Cruz vowed to block the rule from being implemented if he is elected President, and described it as a “radical attempt to destabilize the nation’s energy system.”

Obama and his political allies vowed to push back against the Republicans and industry critics.

“We’ve heard these same stale arguments against it before,” Obama said at the White House event. “Every time America … sets clear rules and smart standards for our air, our water, our children’s health, we get the same scary stories about killing jobs, businesses and freedom.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, vowed on Sunday to build on Obama’s new  power plant rule if she wins election. She dismissed the opponents as “Republican doubters and defeatists.”

Related: Cities Face Costly Projects to Cope with Climate Change

Americans are alarmed by global warming and repeatedly have indicated in polling they want their leaders to address the consequences of unrestrained carbon emissions. A new poll published on Monday by Quinnipiac University shows that by a margin of 65 percent to 25 percent, American voters agree with Pope Francis that action is needed to address global warming. What’s more, by better than three to one, voters believe that climate change is partially manmade – something that some Republican lawmakers and conservative analysts still dispute.

According to the White House, the effects of climate change are already being felt across the county. Over the past 30 years, for example, the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled, and climate change is increasing Americans’ risk of landing in the hospital with a respiratory and heart problem. Severe droughts and wildfires in California and other western and southwestern states are now a common occurrence amid record heat waves. At the same time, rising sea levels are hammering and degrading coastal communities throughout the country.

Yet even among average voters, there is a partisan divide over the specifics of the global warming issue. While the president and many Democrats agree with the Pope that global warming is a moral issue, Republicans by a margin of 77 percent to 18 percent disagree with that assessment. And Republicans are divided 46 percent to 46 percent on the question of whether climate change is caused by human activity. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has long argued and written that global warming is a “hoax.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and most other mainstream scientists long ago concluded that heat-trapping greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere by utility plants directly contribute to global warming. Electric power plants generate about 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually –which amounts to nearly 40 percent of the U.S.’s total annual carbon emissions. The administration’s new rules – which underwent a major overhaul since first surfacing a year ago – for the first time attempt to regulate carbon emissions as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

Related: Look Who’s Worried About Global Warming Now

The new EPA regulations would cut carbon emissions from existing plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and set limits on the amount of carbon pollution that new or modified power plants can release. The plan would also reward states and power plants that move swiftly to increase their investment in alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power.

Among other features of the final rule, according to the White House:

  • Flexibility for states in choosing how to meet carbon standards. “The final rule provides more flexibility in how state plans can be designed and implemented, including streamlined opportunities for states to include proven strategies like trading and demand-side energy efficiency in their plans.”

  • More Time for States Paired With Strong Incentives for Early Deployment of Clean Energy. “State plans are due in September of 2016, but states that need more time can make an initial submission and request extensions of up to two years for final plan submission.  The compliance averaging period begins in 2022 instead of 2020, and emission reductions are phased in on a gradual ‘glide path’ to 2030.”

  • Significant public health benefits – “The Clean Power Plan, and other policies put in place to drive a cleaner energy sector, will reduce premature deaths from power plant emissions by nearly 90 percent in 2030 compared to 2005 and decrease the pollutants that contribute to the soot and smog and can lead to more asthma attacks in kids by more than 70 percent. The Clean Power Plan will also avoid up to 3,600 premature deaths, lead to 90,000 fewer asthma attacks in children, and prevent 300,000 missed work and school days.”