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President Obama unveiled a sweeping plan Tuesday designed to deal with climate change. For the first time, carbon emissions from power plants would be regulated. The policy, which can be implemented by the administration without congressional approval, calls for a broad range of actions, including steps to deal with extreme weather events that are already occurring.
It wasn't a coincidence that the president chose to give this speech to a young crowd — at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. And it may also have been deliberate to give the speech outside, as the temperature hit 92 degrees. The president said he is taking these measures to address climate change to protect the world that these young adults — and their children — will inherit.
"As a president, as a father and as an American, I'm here to say, 'We need to act,' " Obama said. "I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing."
And while the president made clear that his national climate action plan wouldn't come close to solving the problem, it's a step in the right direction, he says. First, and most controversially, it calls for the Environmental Protection Agency to develop standards for emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants.
There are already rules to restrict mercury and other toxic emissions from those smokestacks, Obama noted, "but power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That's not right, that's not safe, and it needs to stop."
His plan would encourage more efficient use of energy, and also lead to a transition toward cleaner sources of power. Obama noted that wind and solar energy supplies doubled during his first term in office.
"The plan I'm announcing today will help us double again our energy from wind and sun," he said. That includes opening up more federal lands so private companies can build wind farms and solar plants there.
A second major element of the plan calls for actions to help the nation cope with weather-related changes that are already taking place. That means preparing farmers to cope better with droughts, and to help local governments be better prepared for weather disasters.
"What we've learned from Hurricane Sandy and other disasters is that we've got to build smarter, more resilient infrastructure that can protect our homes and businesses and withstand more powerful storms," he said.
The final element of the plan is to step up international efforts, including a new climate treaty. Scientists project that carbon dioxide will continue to build up in the atmosphere even as the United States and Europe constrain their emissions. That's because China and India are rapidly pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and they're burning a lot of fossil fuels in the process.
Obama anticipated resistance to his ideas. Many Republicans in Congress don't even acknowledge climate change as a serious issue. But all the particulars of his program can be implemented without involving Congress. Obama said he also would welcome measures from Capitol Hill if attitudes there were to shift back to the days when the concern about climate change was truly a bipartisan issue.
"Nobody has a monopoly on what is a very hard problem," Obama said. "But I don't have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society."
Obama also made passing reference to the Keystone XL Pipeline, saying the pipeline from Canada to Texas would only be approved if it does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.
The most controversial element of Obama's new policy is the new set of rules that would limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
The Obama plan simply directs the EPA to come up with those emission rules, but doesn't specify what they should be.
Scott Segal, a lawyer at Bracewell & Giuliani, a firm that represents power companies, says that with any policy, "the devil is in the details."
Make the rules too lenient and you don't restrict carbon emissions; make them too onerous, Segal says, and manufacturers might move overseas in search of cheaper power. And if they do that, he says, "the irony is the carbon footprint of the American economy gets worse, not better."
The president anticipated such criticism. It's the same argument industry has made about every clean-air rule, Obama noted, and it has never come to pass.
Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, also sees the control of power plant emissions as the most important element of the president's plan.
"I think it's a major step forward," Beinecke says. She anticipates a fight to make those standards tough enough to make a dent in carbon pollution, but says that's familiar territory for environmental groups like hers.
"Our job is making sure [the standards are] as strong as possible," she says.
A draft of the new regulation is supposed to be ready in a year, and the White House hopes to see a final rule in 2015.
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