We'll start with the video below, which shows testimony from Bryan Koon, head of the emergency division for the state of Florida, before a committee of the state Senate. As you might have heard, former state employees told reporters that using the term "climate change" was forbidden in state government. And Koon's squirming seems to back that charge up.
Banning the use of "climate change" -- which Gov. Rick Scott (R) says he didn't do -- is a particularly weird sideshow to the hyperactive debate over climate-change politics. The main event is much more stubborn. With just over 20 months left in office, President Obama has been talking a bit about his legacy. In an interview with the Huffington Post's Sam Stein, he articulated it like this:
[W]e're going to make sure that when I leave this office, that the country is more prosperous, more people have opportunity, kids have a better education, we're more competitive, climate change is being taken more seriously than it was, and we are actually trying to do something about it. Those are going to be the measures by which I look back and say whether I've been successful as president.
An impartial observer, by contrast, might narrow Obama's legacy play to four things:
- Deal with Iran on nuclear proliferation
- Implementation of Obamacare
- Reforms to the criminal justice system
- Sealing international and domestic measures to combat climate change.
The only one of those four things that appears in both Obama's and our, more objective, analysis is climate change. And if you look at how each of those four things stands to evolve under a possible Republican administration -- perhaps coupled with a Republican Congress -- climate change is perhaps the most vulnerable. That's because it lacks many immediate beneficiaries (which makes rolling it back more difficult) and is dependent on a still-entrenched partisan interpretation of its importance.
First, here's what Obama has done/is doing on the issue.
Politico wrote this month about work toward a robust international deal -- an effort to loop major emitters of greenhouse gases into an agreement that would taper off release of atmospheric gas and hopefully avoid levels that would trigger the worst effects of warming. Obama has already reached a handshake deal with China; now he's reportedly envisioning something more expansive.
Meanwhile, the president has empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to introduce a number of measures that intend to reduce domestic greenhouse gas production. In his first term, the EPA and automakers reached a deal to improve fuel efficiency, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and particulates (soot) released from cars. In his second term, he has tackled coal-burning power plants, the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country -- and one of the politically trickiest.
The extent to which making power plants reduce or capture emissions will increase the price of electricity is subject to debate, but it's an easy point for opponents of the regulations to raise. After all, very few people want to pay more money now to prevent future problems, however severe; no non-lame-duck politicians really want to ask them to do so.
The Florida "climate change" fight is a good marker of the depth of Republican opposition to addressing climate change. The state is expected to be at the forefront of the negative effects of climate change, including rising sea levels from warming oceans and melting ice. The question Koon was answering involved a mandate from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that states have a plan for climate change before receiving FEMA funding -- the sort of arm-twisting from Washington that opponents revile but advocates see as the last hope of making change, given the composition of Congress. That's the real fight.
What has received less attention than the can-you-say-climate-change fight is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) quieter efforts to undermine the administration's power plant rules. McConnell has argued in letters to state governors and in newspaper editorials that the rules should simply be ignored. He offers a legal opinion suggesting that the rules are outside the boundaries of the administration's authority.
That claim is debated in this interview with Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University law school. Revesz compares McConnell's move to the letter from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) meant to undermine the administration's international negotiations on Iran. That letter, addressed to people in Iran, pointed out that future administrations could easily undo whatever agreement Obama signs with the nation. McConnell's letters, Revesz argues, hope in part to make international partners squeamish about signing on dotted lines next to the name Barack Obama.
Climate change came up in the 2012 cycle; Mitt Romney derisively referred to Obama's climate change efforts and his supporters repeatedly focused on Obama's "war on coal," but it wasn't a big part of the conversation. Given Obama's moves, it will almost certainly be more of an issue in 2016. As The Post's Greg Sargent noted in December, Hillary Clinton has been explicit in saying that Obama's climate efforts "must be protected at all cost."
On the Republican side, the attitude is the opposite. No likely Republican candidate has embraced taking strong action to address climate change, which is probably in part because the most conservative voters (who vote heavily in primaries) oppose it most strongly. Even Jeb Bush, understood to be the most moderate in the field, has expressed skepticism about the science behind climate change.
What's more, Obama's moves give Republicans something to push against. In the same way that Obamacare has been a piñata for five years, climate change regulations offer a point of contrast that's often narrowed to the short-term versus long-term cost argument. Which is a political winner, given Americans' ongoing indifference to the problem.
By contrast, Obama's Iran deal might never happen. His criminal justice reforms seem fairly safe, as well, given the shift in the discussion about strict sentencing, uniting Republicans and Democrats in a way few issues do these days. Obamacare could be overturned, but it means possibly dropping insurance coverage for millions of Americans, which is politically risky for Republicans, at best.
Obama's climate change efforts are a very big question mark. When 2016 candidates pledge to repeal Obama's work on Day One, as they will, it's an area in which they might actually be able to deliver.
Florida's maybe-ban on saying "climate change" makes everyone shake their heads, but Scott might also very well end up on the winning team.
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