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White House takes a more modest Plan B to Cancun climate talks

After a 12-day summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, 193 leaders from around the world reached an agreement on how to combat climate change.

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By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 7:17 PM

This is what the 2010 midterm elections will change about U.S. climate policy: Cap-and-trade was dead. Now it will be deader.

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And that may be it.

The Republican rout on Nov. 2 swept in dozens of new representatives and senators opposed to using a cap-and-trade scheme to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. By one estimate, almost half of GOP freshman legislators don't even believe there is sound science behind the theory of man-made climate change.

But, observers say, the election may do relatively little to alter U.S. climate policy before United Nations climate talks begin in Cancun on Nov. 29.

The Republican wins will finally bury the Obama administration's Plan A, which included passing a landmark climate bill in Congress.

But that plan was, in essence, already defunct. And the new GOP majority will have few easy options for undoing the White House's Plan B, a set of new regulations that will cut emissions from power plants and factories.

This Plan B is "not sufficient for the level of emissions reductions that the administration wanted to make," said Robert Stavins, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

At the Copenhagen climate talks, at the end of 2009, Obama said the United States would reduce its emissions "in the range of" 17 percent below 2005 levels. The administration says that Obama still stands by that goal.

"We're not going to get there," Stavins said. "But we are going to get somewhere."

Uphill battle

The midterm elections were the latest in a long series of setbacks for U.S. environmentalists and their (mostly Democratic) allies in Washington.

The high-water mark for many environmental groups came in the summer of 2009, when the House passed a massive bill that would have reduced U.S. emissions.

But that bill never found traction in the Senate, in part because of worries that it would burden the economy by making high-polluting fossil fuels cost more.


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