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

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.

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.

And then came the rise of the tea party movement, including some groups heavily backed by corporate money. Many of its activists asserted that climate change itself was in doubt.

That attitude, once relegated to the fringes of Washington's debate, will now have a solid caucus on Capitol Hill.

The liberal Center for American Progress estimates that 43 out of 98 new Republican legislators question climate researchers' conclusions.

Sen.-elect Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has said that "I don't think there's the scientific evidence to justify it."

And Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said, "I think anyone who makes an absolute conclusion is probably overstating their conclusion."

The impact of their election will certainly be felt in Cancun.

For years, climate negotiators have said that a lack of action in Washington on regulating emissions has stalled global talks. They fear now that if U.S. efforts lose steam, that could provide cover for another huge emitter, China, to do nothing.

"I disagree with [the new U.S. legislators], and I think it is not [a] responsible way of handling risks," said Jens Stoltenberg, the prime minister of Norway. "Is it responsible to listen to those who are saying that this isn't dangerous, instead of listening to the majority who are telling us this is really dangerous?"

But in the short term, the expectations for Cancun are already fairly low.

"The mood may be a little down," said Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "The actual decisions may be the same."

Piece by piece

Environmentalists now say their best hope in Cancun is not for a grand global deal - which was the ambition they brought to Copenhagen - but rather for a series of small agreements on how to pay for measures such as reducing deforestation or how to help poor countries adapt to a warming climate.

The United States could participate in small agreements such as these, experts said, without having to get a treaty through a skeptical Congress.

Looking beyond the Cancun meetings, the White House is laying out plans to attack climate change without help from the legislative branch. After the election, President Obama said that a cap-and-trade bill "was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way. It was a means, not an end."

Another means, administration officials have said, might be to negotiate an agreement with major electric utilities to lower their emissions, emulating a similar pact with automakers last year.

Also, next year the Environmental Protection Agency will begin requiring states to limit the greenhouse gas emissions from major sources such as power plants and factories. That idea has raised ferocious opposition from industry groups.

But for now, the bureaucratic wheels are still turning: A recent survey found that only one state, Texas, was not preparing to issue permits as the EPA has demanded.

Middle ground?

For Republicans, the countermove to this Plan B would be to pass resolutions negating the EPA regulations.

Even before the midterm elections, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) had already tried this tactic.

More attempts will likely be made, but experts said these are still unlikely to succeed, because President Obama could veto them.

If Obama and the Republicans seek grounds for agreement, they might look at a package of subsidies for a variety of energy sources: "green" power, such as wind and solar; nuclear power; and perhaps research into "clean coal" technologies.

But that idea might also run into opposition from new legislators elected with tea party support, who have pledged to cut federal spending across the board.

"Fossil fuels and nuclear and clean coal have become to the right what wind and solar are to the left. And I think that's where you could see some sort of agreement," said Nick Loris of the Heritage Foundation.

His group, which favors free markets and small government, would object to any such funding: "We don't believe that the taxpayers should be subsidizing special interests."

fahrenthold@washpost.com eilperinj@washpost.com

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