With the announcement that a delegation from the Congressional Republican Flat Earth Caucus will show up to embarrass President Obama in Copenhagen next week, I hope the White House finally decides to man up on climate change.
What "manning up" means in the present context is that the Obama administration must get serious about using its regulatory authority to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions well below the levels being considered on Capitol Hill.
So far, Obama has been scrupulous in not "getting out ahead" of Congress on climate change. He has announced he will appear in Copenhagen on Dec. 18 to commit the United States to the goal passed by the U.S. House — a reduction in emissions of only about 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 (17 percent below 2005 levels). That is embarrassingly low compared to the European Union's goal of 20 percent below 1990 levels and to the opinion of leading climate scientists that industrialized nations should be shooting for 40 or 45 percent below our 1990 emissions.
With EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's formal finding on Monday that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare, the administration now has the legal tool to establish a goal more in line with climate science and to make sure that goal is met.
The question is whether Obama plans to use regulation as a small crowbar to pry a bill from Congress or as a game-changer in the economy.
Politically, it's time for Obama to accept that Clintonesque centrism isn't working as a leadership strategy. So far, the White House has been acting like a Capitol Annex rather than a branch of government duty-bound to check and balance not only the excesses of Congress, but also its failures.
Obama's desire not to "get out in front of Congress," which began with his trek down Pennsylvania Avenue shortly after his election to sit down with Republican members in a symbolic reach across the aisle, has won no more than a handful of GOP votes on enormously important issues of the day, ranging from the stimulus package to the health-care bill and climate change.
It doesn't take a K Street lobbyist to see the only problem Republicans are interested in solving is their minority status on the Hill. Their strategy is to make sure that Obama and the Democratic majority fail as often as possible, even on an issue like climate change that risk the future of Republican children as well as Democratic children.
So now, an unwanted delegation of Republican climate deniers will make the trip to Copenhagen to further undermine America's reputation in the world community and to demonstrate that President Obama is not in control. In doing so, they will show a lack of respect not only for the president but also for their own institution.
They will likely spark a very nasty response in the highly emotional climate conference, which already is threatened with a breakdown due to the goodwill gap between industrial nations and developing countries, including several already suffering the effects of climate change.
That undoubtedly is exactly what the Republican saboteurs hope: A breakdown at COP-15 that sends years of diplomatic efforts into a tailspin. They lost the election last year; they lost the vote on the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill in the House; but they plan not to lose their war against rational and responsible climate action.
So here is our untenable situation: So long as the world waits for Obama to lead, and so long as Obama waits for Congress to lead, the international response to global climate change can be stopped by one vote in the United States Senate — one elected ego who has sold his soul to the coal industry or who wants to be a hero to the radical right, with all the campaign contributions that status promises.
Obama has the power to prevent this travesty, if only he chooses to use it. Here's how:
First, the president should announce to Congress and to the world that his Administration intends to implement aggressive regulations that will cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 40-45 percent by 2020, compared to 1990. This will require a World War II scale national effort in collaboration with states, half of which already have their own climate plans.
Second, he should request that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson establish a carbon cap-and-trade system that equips the United States to participate in the global trading regime expected to emerge sooner or later from the United Nations process. Jackson should respond with a clean and transparent trading regime in coordination with states and regions that already have established their own trading systems.
Meantime, Obama should tell congressional leaders that he still prefers a market mechanism to regulation and he is willing to work with the Hill to make climate legislation work in tandem with the Clean Air Act. But he should set out these non-negotiable terms: The United States will cut its emissions 45 percent in the next 10 years. If Congress passes a bill with a lower cap, the Administration will regulate to achieve the rest. If Congress passes a bill that is wholly inadequate, the president will veto it.
Finally, if it appears the Senate cannot produce the 67 votes necessary to recommend ratification of an international treaty, the president should prepare to use an executive agreement to collaborate with other nations on carbon reduction and climate adaptation. An executive agreement can be used much like a treaty, but does not require a Senate vote.
Some members of Congress will react by trying to curtail EPA's power and by placing new restrictions on executive agreements. To block such retaliation, the president should implement his strategy in full consultation with the members of Congress who believe in responsible climate action and who might he relieved to see the president take the heat. Obama should put Republicans and conservative Democrats in the position where they need 60 Senate votes to bring retaliatory legislation to the floor.
In Copenhagen on Tuesday, news of Jackson's endangerment finding created a buzz of speculation about whether Obama would come to the climate conference with a December surprise — i.e., an announcement that he and Jackson planned to use the Clean Air Act to set a more ambitious carbon-cutting target than the president has embraced so far. Jackson was asked about this three times; she evaded the question each time, saying only that the EPA has to be mindful of lawsuits and has to take action that is "reasonable and cost-effective".
But the EPA will be sued no matter what it does, and nothing is more reasonable and cost-effective than preventing severe climate change with all of its costly impacts, from drought and disease to national security threats and natural disasters. In fact, a strong climate policy that relies on energy efficiency and renewable energy, a smart grid and other improvements to our aging infrastructure, and that ends America's dependence on foreign oil and slows our energy trade deficit, will put people back to work, from steelworkers to computer technicians.
The regulatory approach has been studied and recommended by groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity, which has just joined 350.org in petitioning EPA to use the Clean Air Act for aggressive cuts in greenhouse gases. In an analysis issued earlier this year, the center concluded:
"Notwithstanding the fact that EPA currently has not only the full authority under the Clean Air Act, but the legal mandate, to begin requiring greenhouse emissions reductions immediately from nearly all major sources in the U.S., a decade of agency inaction under the statute has created a prevailing perception that the Clean Air Act is somehow 'ill suited' to addressing greenhouse emissions and that new legislation is needed before meaningful U.S. action to address greenhouse emissions can occur.
"However, a review of Clean Air Act provisions demonstrates that the law is in fact very well-suited to addressing greenhouse emissions, and if expeditiously implemented and enforced would result in emission reductions in the U.S. at least equal to, but likely exceeding those under any climate legislation currently before Congress."
Researchers at the New York University Law School and Columbia University's Center for Climate Change Law looked at the executive agreement option and concluded it can be used as an alternative to a treaty.
It is time for the Executive Branch to assert itself. If it does, Obama can come to Copenhagen week with a bold and actionable commitment to cutting America's carbon pollution, in a way that is under his control, saves the negotiations and renders meaningless the shameless shenanigans of the Flat Earth Caucus.
(Official White House photo by Pete Souza)