President Barack Obama needs the Republican Party’s blessing for many of the proposals he outlined in his State of the Union address last week, but climate change is not one of them.
Using existing laws, regulations and international agreements, the president can bypass Congress altogether and accomplish significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, widely believed to contribute to global warming, many experts say. In particular, the Clean Air Act, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by states, gives the president broad authority over air pollution.
“Republicans may say something like, ‘It’s an administrative overreach,’ but in fact all he would be doing is enforcing the Clean Air Act as passed by Congress, signed into law by George (H.W.) Bush and interpreted by the Roberts court,” said Daniel J. Weiss, Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress, referring to Chief Justice John Roberts, who was appointed by the Republican president. “If the Republicans don’t like it, they can try to change it.”
However, some Republicans have recently argued that taking action on climate change now is futile unless other major polluters, such as China and India, also join the effort.
“If we unilaterally impose these sorts of things on our economy, it would have a devastating impact on economics,” Sen. Marco Rubio said during a Feb. 5 interview with BuzzFeed, a website of trending news.
“I think that’s what’s standing in the way of doing anything about this,” the Florida Republican said. “The benefit is difficult to justify when you realize that it’s only us doing it.”
Beyond economics, there are those who argue that climate change is a natural phenomenon and fighting nature is a losing battle.
“The Earth has been around 4 billion years and we know there has been massive heating and cooling,” said Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, during a climate change workshop in Tallahassee. “We can do this stuff and I’m not challenging that we ought to do it, but inevitably the cycles of the Earth are going to overcome any artificial stuff that we do.”
However, many experts say the president does not need to get bogged down in scientific and political debates but can take numerous unilateral actions that include:
- Requiring the EPA to set carbon-pollution standards for power plants, refineries and other major industrial sources under the Clean Air Act and to finalize standards for new plants.
“Power plants account for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Nicholas Bianco, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute and co-author of the article, “Can the U.S. get there from here? Using existing laws and state action to reduce greenhouse gas emission.”
At the 2009 United Nation’s convention on climate change in Copenhagen, the administration committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below the 2005 levels by 2020. Energy that comes from coal, oil and natural gas account for 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. — which makes setting performance standards for power plants a top priority, Bianco said.
- Phase-out ozone-depleting hydroflurocarbons, known as HFCs — used for refrigeration and air-conditioning — through the Montreal Protocol. The international agreement was negotiated in the 1980s under then-President Ronald Reagan. The EPA also could ban ozone depleting chemicals, such as HFCs, for which there are safer alternatives, Bianco said.
- Set stricter ozone smog standards. In 2011 the administration rejected a recommendation from the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee to strengthen the public-health standard for ozone smog, saying it would reconsider in 2013 after additional research is complete.
- Reduce the amount of sulfur in U.S. gasoline and set emission limits on new vehicles. Also, require federal agencies to use low-emission vehicles and those that rely on alternative fuels when possible.
- Require a percentage of the electricity generated on public land to be clean and renewable, such as wind, solar or hydropower. Already, as much as 40 percent of coal and 20 percent of natural gas produced in the U.S. come from public land or waters.
“I’m very optimistic because the president is going to reduce carbon pollution and make communities more resilient by implementing existing laws,” Weiss said. “That means a do-nothing Congress won’t have much impact.”
At the state level, the prospect for climate-change legislation is even bleaker than in Washington, D.C. No bills have been introduced and no money was designated in Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed budget.
Still, Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said much can and already has been done at the local level. Rather than waiting for Washington or Tallahassee to act, Pafford said, Florida’s unique vulnerabilities to rising sea levels mean coastal communities must act.
To highlight the threat and what leaders in South Florida have done despite the legislature’s inaction, Pafford hosted a workshop in Tallahassee for the region’s lawmakers Feb. 14. County officials and water managers from Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties — members of the Southeast Florida Climate Change Compact — explained how they conducted their own research and formulated plans for dealing with rising sea levels.
“If we hadn’t come together as a region to do this work, I don’t think we would have gotten this kind of support from state and regional agencies and the academic institutions,” said Palm Beach County Assistant Administrator John Van Arnam. Still, members of the compact acknowledge that their effort will require the Legislature’s participation — especially with money to help communities fortify sea walls, roads, buildings and public utilities.
“If we have an enemy right now, it’s Mother Nature,” Pafford said. “Do we want to be reactive or engage and plan?”