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White House to get aggressive on climate change?

Republicans are rightly outraged this morning because new White House counsel0r John Podesta compared the GOP to a “cult worthy of Jonestown” in an interview earlier this fall that Politico published today. Podesta has since apologized.

Beyond this flap, there is some important news in the piece about Podesta: He agreed to the job on the condition that he be allowed to oversee an aggressive climate change agenda via executive action.

As Politico’s Glenn Thrush reports:

The deal-sealer for Podesta, who has vowed to stay for only a year, was Obama’s assurance that he would be given broad oversight of the administration’s climate change agenda — even though Podesta has agreed to recuse himself from the decision on the Keystone pipeline, which he opposes. And here is where the template for Podesta in action might first become apparent: With chances of major legislation on climate change all but dead given congressional opposition, Podesta will push for aggressive executive action, in addition to backstopping new Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy on controversial new emissions guidelines for power plants.
Moreover, he is almost certain to side with environmentalists over energy companies, as he did during the Clinton administration when he teamed with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to protect vast new tracts of national forest and wetlands from gas and oil exploration.

Environmentalists are looking at this today with a sense of optimism, since they have been pushing the White House for years to get aggressive on climate change with executive action, the only avenue available, given the reality of today’s Congress. But what would it look like if Podesta actually gets the White House to go through with this in a comprehensive way?

One place to start for an answer is a report on what a president can accomplish with executive action that was written by one…John Podesta, before he joined the White House. It suggests an array of executive actions that a President can take on climate change. There are a whole bunch of them, including actions that would levy fees on imported oil to raise money for clean energy investments; reduce the federal transportation fleet’s dependence on oil; empower a more aggressive EPA to implement the Clean Air Act to increase the use of “low polluting fuel” by metropolitan bus fleets; spur the retirement of coal-fired plants and other steps to cut toxic emissions through more regulations; expand federally protected lands; increase the use of renewal energy and technologies by the military; etc.

Some of this would presumably lead to battles with industry, but if the Politico story is right, Podesta will internally push for such confrontations, even if they are politically daunting. Additionally, the White House has also laid out its own climate action agenda, some of which would be accomplished through executive action, including empowering the EPA to get tougher on polluters and the imposition of new carbon limits on existing plants.

The above ideas more or less represent the dream agenda of environmental groups, and the idea that Podesta will help push for realization of some of them through executive action is encouraging to those who have long hoped to see this happen.

“The political reality is that if the President is going to get anything major done on environmental issues, it’s going to be through executive authority,” Jeff Gohringer, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, tells me. “If John Podesta is going to encourage the president to use his executive authority on environmental issues, that’s a good thing.”

Podesta’s indefensible quote distracts from an important question that should be debated: Whether Congress is a “closed mechanism” for Obama, as Ezra Klein puts it. If there is no chance of winning any Congressional cooperation on climate change in particular, thanks to the current state of the Congressional GOP, what specific and concrete steps should Obama take in response?

Beyond the controversial comparison — which he has now retracted — what Podesta’s quote tells us is that he sees the challenge in those terms, and that he wants Obama to maximize the use of executive authority to respond to the scale of the climate change challenge. Whether Podesta can get the President to do this is a separate question, of course, but the fact that Podesta seems to see that as the goal is itself important.