Obama Seeks Climate Legacy as Coal-State Democrats Cringe

When President Barack Obama reviewed his aides’s ideas for tackling climate change last year, he gave one simple directive: “Don’t skinny it down.”

They didn’t, and Obama now is set to release new limits on greenhouse gas emissions by power plants as early as next week. That comes atop the unveiling of a National Climate Assessment in May and executive actions including promoting renewable fuels and building better defenses against extreme weather.

“The White House is systematically talking about climate change when, not too long ago, they wouldn’t use the word,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island and one of the chamber’s strongest advocates for action to slow climate change. “It’s been a huge step up.”

Obama downplayed climate change in his first term after a 2010 legislative defeat and now is seeking to secure his legacy on climate issues before his presidency comes to a close, say current and former aides who asked for anonymity to describe their meetings with him.

Liberated from re-election politics, he’s freer to speak about the challenges of a warming planet and is using his bully pulpit to create urgency on an issue that most Americans rank as a low priority, the aides said.

In a White House meeting with eight Western governors last February, Obama used satellite images to make the case that climate change was responsible for the wildfires and droughts facing their states, arguing that the country must take bigger steps to tackle the issue.

‘Deep Understanding’

“He has a deep understanding of the science,” said Democratic Governor Jay Inslee of Washington. “And he’s stepping up to the plate.”

There is still a chance Obama will approve the Keystone XL pipeline, opposed by environmentalists. And the greenhouse gas regulation plan comes with political risks from the other end of the spectrum, potentially causing trouble for Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate who are running in key energy states such as Alaska and Louisiana.

Speaking at the commencement ceremony at West Point yesterday, Obama called climate change “a creeping national security crisis” vowing to make sure “America is out front in a global framework to preserve our planet.

‘‘We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if so many of our political leaders deny that it is taking place,’’ he said.

Frank O’Donnell, president of the environmental group Clean Air Watch in Washington, said ‘‘it is very clear that this has been bumped on the president’s personal priority list.” The president is running out of time, and “if he wants to have anything happen on this issue, he has to make it happen now,” he said.

Industry Angst

The expansive action is alarming some in the business community, who say the administration’s policies will hurt the economy.

The National Association of Manufacturers in Washington is spearheading a drive by 140 organizations against the expected draft ruling by the Environmental Protection Agency. Coal producers, steel manufacturers, and refiners and are also gearing up to fight the regulations.

“This administration is setting up the next energy crisis in this country,” said Laura Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity in Washington. “They’re not looking at the long-term consequences.”

Obama also faces push-back from some within his own party, who warn that tighter regulations could hamper Democratic candidates in areas where coal is a major source of jobs. Democrats in Kentucky and West Virginia already are distancing themselves from the president’s energy policies, highlighting their opposition to a “war on coal” on the campaign trail.

Early Commitment

Obama in his first presidential campaign spoke frequently about the threat of climate change.

“Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all,” he said at a climate conference held 11 days after his 2008 election. “Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.”

In his first term, his administration raised national automobile fuel efficiency standards and imposed the country’s first limits for mercury and other toxic air pollution from coal power plants, which also are the largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Momentum flagged after the president backed a House bill that would have imposed a national limit on greenhouse gas emissions. The legislation died in the Senate, a failure some environmentalists blamed in part on a tepid White House.

Political Hedging

Inside the administration, aides were divided over how hard to push for action on climate change. Former senior adviser David Axelrod and former Chief of Staff William Daley saw the issue as a political liability, given American anxiety about health care and the struggling economy. They pushed to downplay it in the run-up to Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, according to former officials.

In September 2011, Obama asked the EPA to drop the development of rules to cut smog levels. A December report from the Administrative Conference of the United States, based on anonymous interviews with senior employees in federal agencies, found that internal reviews of other environmental and energy regulations took longer in 2011 and 2012 because of “political sensitivities.”

Obama has told aides that his second term presents a new opportunity. After he won, he made the issue the most prominent vow in his second inaugural address.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said in his 2013 remarks. “That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.”

Rulemaking Strategy

The re-elected president brought John Podesta, who oversaw environmental policy during the Clinton administration, to help manage the action on the issue. Podesta had developed strategies for working around the deadlocked Congress with agency rulemaking.

Fully enacting new EPA limits will take years, extending beyond the president’s second term in office which ends in January 2017. Podesta will help Obama make sure his policies last past then, said Carol Browner, who ran the EPA for Clinton.

“He cares about these issues. He’s knowledgeable,” she said. “He knows about how the tools work.”

Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, also has a background in the issue: Before joining the administration, he authored several reports about the security threats posed by climate change.

The president, who is regularly briefed on the topic by science adviser John Holdren, also has read some of the underlying scientific documents used by experts to craft the national climate assessment, according to Gary Yohe, a professor of environmental studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut who helped write the report.

Natural Disasters

The weather -- including superstorm Sandy -- has also heightened Obama’s focus on the issue.

During the past four years, he signed an average of 72 major disaster declarations annually -- a nearly 30 percent increase over the previous decade’s average, according to a report by the Washington-based Center for American Progress, which Podesta helped found.

Obama has visited “places where there’s all these obvious problems” because of climate change, said Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat whose state, California, has been hurt by a historic drought. “The urgency has grown greater for everybody.”

The president also is pushing to curtail emissions abroad, including during meetings in April with leaders of Japan and South Korea.

“Every country should be coming up with a climate action plan to try to reduce its carbon emissions,” he told students in Kuala Lumpur on April 27. “You have to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

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