President Obama is expected to announce a sweeping plan to address climate change this afternoon.
The president has framed this issue as a moral responsibility, to leave the Earth in good shape for generations to come. But the nitty-gritty of any serious plan to address this problem is also a challenge, because it means gradually moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy supplies — and that means there will be economic winners and losers.
Winners include companies that produce clean energy — wind, solar and geothermal energy. That energy will be more in demand, and the administration intends to expand access to public lands, where companies can build windmills and solar facilities.
Public health is also a winner, because the plan would pressure coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions. Those plants not only produce carbon dioxide, but they are major sources of mercury, radioactive particles and chemicals that contribute to asthma.
Losers under this plan would eventually be coal mining companies and utilities that burn a lot of coal. That’s because — for the first time — the government plans to limit how much carbon dioxide existing power plants can put into the air. It’s a key element of the new plan, but it’s also unclear just what form it will take. Those limits are supposed to be negotiated over the coming year, with input from industry as well as the states. The president’s 21-page plan calls for them to be finalized in 2015, according to administration officials.
If those limits are aggressive, they could drive up electricity prices. But if the limits are too relaxed, they won’t have much of an effect on emissions.
Overall, the president is striving to reach an emissions-reduction goal he laid out at the 2009 United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen: to reduce U.S. emissions by 17 percent, relative to our 2005 emissions, by the year 2020. The nation is not currently on track to meet the goal, despite some aggressive fuel-efficiency standards for new cars and a big expansion of renewable energy supplies during President Obama’s first term. This new climate policy is intended to close the gap.
The plan also calls for the government to keep working internationally to reduce emissions, since climate change requires a global response. And even with a good international effort, some climate change is already inevitable. So the White House policy calls on efforts to adapt to a world with more extreme weather events.
For example, new standards for roads would assure that they are built high above flood levels. Farmers would be provided with ways to adapt to more drought conditions. And local governments would get assistance to help them plan for extreme weather.
All of these proposals can be enacted without action on Capitol Hill. That’s deliberate. Many Republicans in congress reject the judgment of the National Academy of Sciences and other authorities who say climate change is a real concern.