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Post-Sandy and Post-Election, Will Political Taboo on Climate Change Be Lifted?

Green groups wasted no time announcing a protest in front of the White House to claim a mandate for action, but partisan gridlock remains.

Nov 7, 2012
President Obama after his re-election on Tuesday night.

Even before President Obama took the stage for his victory speech last night, environmentalists were laying out their expectations for his second term: act on climate change, whether it's through sweeping legislative action, regulatory rules or decisions like blocking the Keystone XL pipeline.

Just minutes after the race was called Tuesday night, the group 350.org announced a Keystone XL protest on Nov. 18. Young climate activists who joined the celebration outside the White House held up a sign saying "Sandy Demands Climate Action Now," a reference to the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. 

One line in Obama's victory speech gave the green groups hope that he might act.

"We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet," the president said.

But taking action to achieve those goals isn't going to be easy. While more than a dozen legislators targeted by environmental groups for their votes on clean energy and climate change bills were defeated Tuesday, neither chamber switched parties. With the status quo likely to continue in Congress, environmental groups say they'll pressure the White House to continue, or amplify, its work of the last four years.

"When I listened to his speech, I was happy to hear that he talked about the problem of climate change in the category of things the country can agree on," said Lou Leonard, managing director of climate change for the World Wildlife Fund. "The president needs to continue to build on that narrative in the transition. We need him to join the conversation we're having about climate change and lead that conversation in Washington."

Eileen Claussen, president of Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said Obama "has an opportunity and an obligation to press the case for stronger climate action."

"No one is better placed than the president to help Americans understand both the risks of a warming climate and the opportunities of a clean-energy transition," Claussen said in a statement.

There's even a push for Obama to take a larger role on the world's stage. In a statement congratulating Obama, a spokesman for United Nations secretary general Ban-Ki Moon said the secretary general looks forward to working with the president on "tackling the challenges posed by climate change," among other issues. And Tom Mitchell, head of climate change for the Overseas Development Institute, a British think tank focused on international development and humanitarian issues, urged Obama to "show the kind of leadership that would put him amongst the all time greats," including going to the international climate talks that begin later this month in Doha, Qatar.

Obama's biggest challenge, however, will be getting legislation through Congress. Many environmental groups expect that, given Republican opposition in the House, the administration will continue using its regulatory authority to pass environmentally friendly regulations. In Obama's first term, the Environmental Protection Agency set the first greenhouse gas limits on new power plants, proposed the first national standard for mercury from coal facilities and bolstered fuel economy rules for passenger vehicles.

By the end of the year the EPA also is expected to release a rule that would limit pollution from existing power plants and refineries. Before the election, there were reports that the EPA was trying to push the power plant rule out quickly, in case Mitt Romney won the presidency.

"For the next couple of months, we expect to see the EPA just finishing the business at hand. Chief among that is addressing pollution from power plants and what waters can be regulated under the Clean Water Act," said David Goldston, senior adviser to the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund.

In a second term, the EPA could consider rules governing coal ash waste and ground-level pollution, analysts say.

Groups that generally oppose action on climate change are, like the environmental groups, girding for what might be coming from the White House.

"This election really didn't change much in terms of the dynamic in Washington in the sense that President Obama stays in the White House and Congress stays the same," said James Taylor, senior fellow for environmental policy for the Heartland Institute, a noted climate skeptic group. "So we'll probably just see this battle where EPA is taking severe measures and a different path than Congress might have taken."

On Wednesday the Institute for Energy Research, a free-market research group, issued a statement warning that "Within a few days, we can expect the EPA and other agencies to start issuing the regulations they have been withholding until after the election. These regulations will drive up the price of oil, coal, and natural gas by making their exploration, production, transportation and consumption more costly and uncertain."

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