Obama’s Climate Plan Makes for Canny Politics

My Comments: In keeping with tradition, the President’s critics are having the usual hysterics about his recent announcement designed to reduce carbon emissions. If I were the owner of a bunch of coal mines, I’d probably be unhappy too.

But for the rest of us who don’t own coal mines, which is virtually all of us, it’s another step toward somehow delaying what appears to be the inevitable, which is rising sea levels. If scientists said there appeared to be an asteroid whose trajectory was likely to cause it to impact with our planet 50 years from now, I’d be upset if politicians said it was nonsense, and refused to allocate funds to perhaps find a remedy.

While the new rules do will not satisfy the far left, governing is the art of the possible, which most on the right have forgotten all about.

by Nick Butler on August 3, 2015 in the Financial Times

Having solved the Iranian problem US President Barack Obama has selected climate change as the next building block in the construction of his legacy.

The contents of his “clean power plan”, which he announced on Monday, are important for their substance and, equally, for their political impact — not just for the Paris climate negotiations in December but more importantly for the presidential election next year.

On the substance, the move is an unprecedented peacetime assertion of political authority over the private sector. Even if some states resist the instruction to cut emissions by about a third from a 2005 base within 15 years, many will obey — with serious consequences for the businesses involved and their investors. Coal-fired power plants will be closed and, with export potential limited, dozens of US coal mines will close as well. No wonder the reaction from the industry is fierce.

The beneficiary will be the solar business. Mr Obama’s plan echoes the initiative launched last month by Hillary Clinton as part of her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, designed to increase the amount of solar power generated by 700 per cent by 2027, using regulatory power to boost the market share of renewables.

The number is ambitious but the pace of technical progress means growth could be achieved without a big increase in subsidies or consumer prices. Across the US the costs of solar is falling and beginning to reach “grid parity”— which means they are competitive with the lowest cost fossil fuel without the need for subsidies. Mrs Clinton’s proposal cuts with the grain of emerging reality.

Nuclear and natural gas are left, under Mr Obama’s proposals, to fend for themselves, with no mandated market shares and no subsidies. As things stand, the gas industry can cope but, short of a breakthrough that reduces production costs, new nuclear in America looks almost as lost as it does in Europe.

Missing from the proposals is any new push to develop science that will increase the efficiency of energy supply and consum­ption. That is a pity as low-income consumers in countries such as India need fuel sources that are both low cost and low carbon if climate change is to be beaten. But policies directed to developing such technology may come later — there is, after all, more than a year until the election.

That brings us to the politics of Mr Obama’s plan. It is worthy of Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian anti-hero in the Netflix series, House of Cards . In the black arts of politics, one of the most precious achievements is to define the differences between you and your opponents on your own terms. An­other is to force opponents into positions they wish to avoid. A third is to divide them against themselves. Mr Obama has managed all three in one go.

The Republicans predictably walked into the trap. Marco Rubio, the Florida senator seeking the Republican nomination, instantly declared the policy “catastrophic”. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, who campaigned for his seat last year on the slogan “Coal Guns Freedom”, called for individual states to disobey the new laws. Even Jeb Bush, who has been trying to sound rational on the question, was forced to condemn the president’s initiative as “irresponsible”.

Given the nature of the Republican voter base and the views of big donors such as the billionaire Koch brothers, those who seek the Republican nomination can do little else. The problem for them (and the beauty of Mr Obama’s political play) is that, as they walk in the direction of those who will determine which of them is the candidate next year, they are walking away from the views of the voters who will determine the outcome of the election.

According to the public polls, for instance from the Yale Project on Climate Change, global warming has become a real concern. Coal is seen as dirty and unhealthy. Mrs Clinton, assuming she secures the Democratic nomination, may not win some of the coal states. One of the fascinating subtexts of her initiative, and of the president’s proposals, is the deliberate distancing of the Democratic leadership from organised labor, including the once powerful mining unions. But the calculation must be that she will gain overall by being on the side of the future.

Mr Obama’s proposals are detailed and complicated, and will now be subject to every sort of legal challenge. They are unlikely to be implemented in full. In themselves they will not solve the global problem of climate change, nor force any other country to follow suit. But they do serve to define the direction of American energy policy and also of American electoral politics.

The writer is a visiting professor at King’s College London and a former BP group vice-president for strategy

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