After health care, Obama must arm-twist Senate on climate bill

Vote in Senate soon against EPA action on global warming requires him to prove that carbon limits will boost the economy and create jobs. After the Copenhagen failure, he has a weak hand.

President Obama is making personal pitches with US lawmakers this week to resolve the last sticking points for passage of a final healthcare bill. That may be a model soon for the kind of hands-on persuasion he’ll need for his other big legislative goal – a law on climate change.

Mr. Obama’s persuasive style will be required to convince a dozen or so senators from coal-dependent states who are reluctant to tackle global warming. In two weeks, the Senate is expected to vote on a measure that would block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from imposing strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions. 

The Obama EPA has used the threat of regulatory action against coal and oil users as a political tool to force Congress to pass a law that would cap emissions of greenhouse gases. Even the agency admits that a new law, not unilateral action by the executive branch, is the best way to handle this problem. EPA has to rely on the 1970s Clean Air Act that was not designed for these types of emissions. And any EPA ruling on carbon emissions would likely be tied up in the courts for years, delaying a solution.

Obama now needs to justify a climate-change law mainly on economic grounds. Fear of global warming doesn’t seem to work in the Senate. Many top lawmakers believe that setting a cap on carbon emissions will damage the economy – especially if America’s competitors around the world don’t do the same. And they say there’s little chance of Senate passage in 2010 if unemployment stays high. (The House already passed a climate bill last June in a close vote.)

At last month’s international meeting on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark, the president was able to snatch only a few small victories from a larger defeat. No binding treaty to curb global warming was achieved, although two of the biggest polluters, China and India, did agree to set voluntary targets to reduce the “intensity” of their carbon emissions in their economies. 

Copenhagen’s failure puts even more pressure on Obama to prove his argument that setting carbon limits and making hefty investments in clean energy will boost the economy – and not limit it, as his critics on Capitol Hill contend. He should not need to resort to the kind of expensive horse-trading with special interests and offers of pork-barrel benefits to individual senators that he used to win votes in the healthcare bills.

He does have backup. Many energy-intensive companies and about half of state governments are already heading down the path of reducing their carbon footprints. Their track record, which could go far in meeting Obama’s promised cuts in greenhouse gases, should be cited as proof of what can be done. California and 10 Northeast states are leading the way on curbing emissions.

The 2009 stimulus package is also putting $80 billion into renewable energy sources. The earlier these projects show results in creating financial returns and sustainable jobs, the sooner Congress will respond by capping carbon emissions that force companies to invest in those areas. 

The White House is also orchestrating a raft of regulatory rules in many agencies such as the Interior Department that would force companies to take carbon emissions into account. One major step would require “climate change impact statements” in any federal approval of projects. Another would push land-use policies that encourage urban density in housing – and thus less driving.

Public interest in curbing carbon emissions is declining as a national priority. If Obama can make his case for economic results, that will be far better than all the previous warnings about rising seas and major storms.

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