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The Surprising Way Obama Is Trying to Tackle Climate Change

Watch Climate of Doubt, FRONTLINE’s investigation into the massive shift in public opinion on climate change and the groups that shifted the direction of the debate.

When President Obama tried to push for legislation on climate change during his first term, he encountered such fierce political opposition that it quickly became clear Congress wouldn’t be the avenue to reform.

But the president says that addressing the issue is still a top priority, and his administration is now looking for new, more quiet ways to tackle climate change, according to Coral Davenport, National Journal‘s energy and environment correspondent. FRONTLINE asked Davenport about the administration’s shift.

You recently wrote about how federal agencies are turning to local governments to prepare for climate change. What are they doing, and what’s the impetus for this kind of local outreach?

There are two ways to tackle climate change: One is mitigation, [such as] policies that stop emissions, stop carbon. The other is adaptation. If you know the impacts that are coming, if there’s going to be higher sea levels, if there’s going to be increased drought, if there’s going to be stronger storms, if there’s going to be flooding, and that’s what the science tells us is coming, then there’s adaptation.

The White House has tasked all of the federal agencies with coming up with adaptation plans. In other words, how can the agriculture department come up with ways for farmers to adapt to the drought that we know is coming? How can the transportation and housing and urban development departments help cities and towns adapt to the storms that we know are coming; to build roads and bridges that we know will be safer in a world of higher sea levels; to build infrastructure that can handle more intense flooding?

It seems very unlikely that this Congress is going to pass anything on mitigation or adaptation. The White House is looking for ways it can take the executive authority to tackle climate change across the board without action from Congress. This was one way that they can do it.

Does this help avoid the political fight the Obama administration has faced in the past when trying to take on climate change?

The issue of climate change remains surprisingly inflammatory. There is a significant [part] of the Republican Party and of the Tea Party that questions the science of climate change. … When you start that conversation, it just explodes. And I think the president just doesn’t want to take the conversation that direction. …

I don’t think that we’re going to see the president going around the country and giving lots of speeches. Instead, I think we are going to see outreach by federal agencies reaching out to cities and states and towns and saying, “How can we help you?” That’s not going to get the kind of high-profile publicity the way a presidential speech would, but it means that there’s not a high-profile fight going on about the politics of climate change. …

And that’s the idea: to get this conversation on climate change to get into town halls and city halls and planning boards and zoning boards where it’s not partisan; it’s just very practical. It becomes treated as a matter-of-fact set of issues that towns and cities have to plan for. … It becomes something that is baked in to how communities are planning for the future.

Has anything like this been done before?

No, we haven’t seen this across-the-board federal outreach and this kind of grassroots push on climate change. …

When this president has tried to tackle the issue of climate change before, it was with presidential speeches and declarations of green jobs. This is a new way of doing things.

In terms of addressing climate change through mitigation rather than adaption, what else is the administration trying to do?

[In his 2013 State of the Union address], President Obama called on Congress to act. He said, “My first choice is to have Congress act.” But it seems very clear that Congress is going to fail to act, in which case the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does have, under the Clean Air Act, authority to force coal plants, which are the biggest contributors to carbon emissions, to cut their carbon emissions. That is a top-down, very aggressive move. It’s sort of a last resort [because] it’s very politically unpopular.

The administration really didn’t want it to get to this point. They definitely would have preferred that Congress would have done something and that industry have a say, but it looks like they have that authority, and so the EPA will roll out rules that will essentially have coal plants cut their emissions. …

This spring the EPA is expected to put out final rules essentially saying that companies building new electric utilities will have to limit the emissions by those electric facilities, but that doesn’t have any effect on existing power plants. So that changes the landscape of the future.

That rule that’s in the process of being put together probably means that no new coal plants will be built, and that’s a big deal. But the really big regulation that we expect to see moving forward is a rule that says existing coal plants will have to cut their emissions. So these two combined are a very big deal. …

That’s going to get huge blowback. It’s probably going to cause some coal plants to shut down. It probably is going to cost them jobs. And it probably will have a big environmental impact. It probably will cut U.S. carbon pollution. But it will have huge political pushback.

To try to prevent that legal and political pushback, the administration has been reaching out to industry insiders to communicate their concerns as they craft these regulations. What does that entail?

Quite specifically, the outreach is to electric utilities. These are the companies that are going to feel the biggest impact. These are companies that own and run coal-fired power plants. These companies hate these regulations and are going to fight them every step of the way. When the regulations come out, they are going to sue the federal government. There’s no question about that. But what the administration is doing is saying: “We are going to do these regulations. We are authorized under the law to do them. They’re coming, whether you like them or not.”

So they’re inviting all of the industry heads, particularly in the coal-fired electricity industry, into the EPA, and they’re having listening sessions. They’re saying, “Look, we know you don’t like this, but is there a way that we can do this that will be the least painful to your industry?” …

[Regulators] want them to know exactly what’s coming so that when it comes, even if they don’t like it, they will have been in the room hearing about it, offering their input the whole way through. …

The Obama administration knows that these regulations are going to hurt some companies, but in some cases what they’d like to do is — and this is already happening — have companies say, “OK, I don’t like this, but if you do X, Y and Z, it might not hurt my company as badly.” And they’ll put in the request and the regulators who are writing the rules will say, “Well, we can’t give you everything you want, but maybe there’s this one piece that you ask for that won’t really make a difference in the environmental impact that we want to have.

What kind of compromises could we see?

I think a big thing that they’ll come back-and-forth over is what would be the timetable for implementing? I think [regulators] might be able to compromise and say, “We’re going to do this,” and the industry will say, “Can we have some more time to comply?” That might be a [place] where they can come to agreements.

I expect that there will be a back-and-forth over [whether] a federal agency [is] going to have more control over this or [whether] state regulators are going to have more control over this. Generally industry would prefer it if it’s kind of closer to the ground.

And these industry leaders, they’re keen to join these discussions?

The way they put it is, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” They know the rules are coming. They can’t stop the rules from coming. Certainly they appreciate the opportunity to come in and put all of their concerns on the record. … These conversations are already happening.

Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Saunders (I-Vt.) are trying to push for legislation addressing climate change, even though it stands little chance of passing Congress. What’s behind that push?

Shortly after the president’s State of the Union speech in which he called on Congress to act, Boxer and Sanders, who are two of the most liberal members of the Senate, did introduce a sweeping and aggressive climate change bill (PDF) that would tax carbon emissions. Environmentalists love it, and it’s very clear that it has no chance legislatively at all.

I think the idea in this case is to call a lot of attention to it, to put the spotlight on it, to tout it. And when it fails, as it almost inevitably will, to make sure there’s a lot of attention paid to it. … The idea is to publicly make an effort in Congress to have a clash, and send the message to the American public saying, “I gave Congress a chance and they failed, and now I’m going to do what I said I was going to do.”

I think that bill in the Senate will take a few months to fail. The expectation is that Sen. Boxer might try to bring it to the Senate floor by early summer, and what happens with that timeline is that, behind the scenes, it gives the EPA time to gather and write these very difficult and complicated rules.

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