Obama's Climate Plan Faces Huge Political Challenges

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Even before he officially unveiled it, President Obama's plan to cut the carbon pollution produced by power plants faced significant opposition.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

President Obama says the U.S. must act to rein-in greenhouse gases before it's too late. He announced ambitious new climate regulations today. They'd limit the amount of heat-trapping carbon that power plants can release into the atmosphere. The president hailed the rules as a victory for the environment and public health, but as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, there are already challenges on the horizon.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: For President Obama, climate change has taken on the fierce urgency of now. NASA and NOAA call 2014 the hottest year on record, and Obama says the U.S. can no longer wait to take action.

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BARACK OBAMA: I am convinced that no challenge poses a greater threat to our future and future generations than a changing climate.

HORSLEY: In the U.S., power plants are the number-one source of carbon pollution. The new rule would cut those emissions by nearly a third from 2005 levels over the next 15 years. That's more ambitious than a draft target released a year ago. Obama argues strong action by the United States is encouraging other big carbon polluters such as China to set limits on their emissions before an international climate summit later this year.

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OBAMA: When the world faces its toughest challenges, America leads the way forward. That's what this plan is about.

HORSLEY: But while environmentalists are cheering the new rule, others are attacking it. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell calls the regulation a blow to the economy and the middle class, especially in his home state where coal mining is big business.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: In Kentucky, these regulations would likely mean fewer jobs, shuttered power plants, higher electricity costs for families and businesses.

HORSLEY: McConnell says Republican lawmakers are looking for ways to roll back the power plant rule. He's also actively encouraging the nation's governors to ignore it.

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MCCONNELL: I'm not going to sit by while the White House takes aims at the life blood of our state's economy. I'm going to keep doing everything I can to fight them.

HORSLEY: Obama insists the economic benefits of addressing climate change far outweigh the cost. And he notes critics made similar dire predictions about regulations aimed at combating water pollution and acid rain, but each time, industry found a way to adjust.

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OBAMA: We've heard these same stale arguments before. Every time America's made progress, it's been despite these kinds of claims.

HORSLEY: The U.S. used to get more than half its electricity from carbon-intensive coal, but that share was already declining thanks to cheap natural gas. As the cost of renewable energy such as wind and solar power comes down, coal is expected to shrink to just over a quarter of the nation's electric mix by 2030. Meanwhile, attitudes appear to be shifting in support of climate action. Political analyst Barry Rabe, of the Wilson Center and the University of Michigan, has been taking the public's temperature.

BARRY RABE: Two out of three Americans were supportive of the idea of the Clean Power Plan, the idea of removing carbon emissions from existing power plants. That broke up a bit as you looked at different parties or different strategies, but roughly, 2 out of 3 in support.

HORSLEY: The president is planning an aggressive PR push for his climate rule this month, promoting renewable power in a trip to Nevada and spotlighting rising sea levels during a visit to the Alaskan Arctic. Climate will also be on the agenda when the president plays host to Pope Francis this fall. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.