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Obama's Climate Challenge: Winning the Carbon Game

How Obama and his team can pass climate legislation and reach an international accord by December 2009


When it comes to perhaps the largest and most complex policy challenge facing the Obama administration—finally slowing the pace of global warming before dangerous changes become unstoppable—the new president stares down a Dickensian paradox. On the one hand, it’s the best of times for dealing with the issue. The Democratic-controlled Congress is itching for action, with environmentalist Californians Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Henry Waxman at the head of key committees. And the problem has risen so much in visibility that many fossil-fuel companies have come to consider the capping of their greenhouse gas emissions a virtual inevitability. They have joined together in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership—a group featuring General Electric, DuPont, General Motors and many other major corporations—which has called for “cap and trade” legislation that would limit and then slowly ratchet down emissions.

Slide Show: Obama's Cabinet

Yet it’s also the worst of times to address global warming. The recession makes the enactment of strong climate protection policies—which are bound to raise the price of energy, at least in the short term—highly vulnerable to attack. Given the state of the economy, global warming simply cannot top the president’s agenda; ideally, though, progress on it would follow a breakneck timeline that some experts are already describing as impossible to meet.

At the close of 2009, the nations of the world will assemble in Copenhagen to negotiate a global climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. If a U.S. climate policy doesn’t exist by then, it is hard to see how developing countries such as India, Brazil and especially China—whose emissions now exceed those of the U.S.—can be convinced to sign an agreement. The U.S. has been emitting carbon dioxide for far longer and in far greater quantities; the other nations expect the U.S. to take the plunge first.

No one doubts the Obama administration’s dedication on the issue: the president’s cabinet and the White House are filled with a dream team of scientists and climate policy experts committed to strong action (profiled throughout this article). Among the most valuable players are Harvard University’s John Holdren (the president’s science adviser) and Nobel laureate physicist Steven Chu (the secretary of energy). The president himself appears just as passionate. As he put it in November 2008: “Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high; the consequences too serious.” Yet as of this writing, several unresolved matters of policy—and strategy—raise questions about how President Barack Obama’s team can best manage this gargantuan challenge. The choices the president and his key people make over the coming months will determine whether the U.S. will successfully confront climate change—and whether it will lead the world in doing the same.

A Job for the EPA?
The first question concerns the extent to which the new administration will use existing laws and regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of whether or not Congress passes new legislation.

In mid-2007 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, ordering the Bush administration to determine whether greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles represent a danger to the public—which would trigger regulatory control over those emissions under the Clean Air Act. The ruling was a strong rebuke to the Bush government, but in response Stephen Johnson, then chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, essentially punted, opening up a protracted public comment process rather than taking strong action. The Obama administration, however, has indicated that it will do what the Supreme Court asked and generally reverse a number of Johnson’s unpopular precedents.

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