The Coal Wars

Obama’s New Emissions Rules Will Yank the Climate Change Debate Back Into Reality

The new carbon rules may create short-term pain for Democrats, but over time the party will be rewarded for bringing sanity to this debate.

Jeff Swensen/Getty

Doing something—anything!—about climate change and carbon pollution in the United States, as Barack Obama just proposed doing, isn’t important only for our health, our children, and our planet. It’s also—even if it causes some short-term pain in coal states—important for the future of Obama’s party, especially because young voters support such action.

Obama has announced that he will bypass an intensely intransigent Congress and establish new regulations to cut the emissions of power plants. The “Clean Power Plan” would establish national limits on carbon pollution levels for existing power plants, which are responsible for one-third of domestic greenhouse gas emissions in our country. Most of America’s power plants use ancient technology that desperately needs updating. According to the Obama Administration, these revised regulations will help to avoid “6,600 premature deaths, up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children, and up to 490,000 missed work or school days—providing up to $93 billion in climate and public health benefits.” And through increased energy efficiency, electric bills nationwide could shrink by roughly 8 percent, according to figures from the administration. How could anyone have a problem with any of that?

Well, once upon a time no one did. In fact, as analysis by Vox points out, President Obama’s measures today are far less aggressive than what Republicans were calling for in 2008 when the party largely believed in climate change. John McCain, not incidentally, co-authored climate legislation with Joe Lieberman in 2003 (reintroduced in 2005 and 2007). That legislation included a cap-and-trade plan to lower carbon emissions.

McCain praised his own plan to “set reasonable caps on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions” to help “the nation to use energy with maximum efficiency-building conservation into the economy in a manner that produces financial and environmental benefits.” And when his 2008 running mate Sarah Palin was asked whether she supported cap-and-trade regulations on emissions, she was decisive: “I do.” Vox also catalogues the many Republicans, from Newt Gingrich to George W. Bush, who publicly talked about the climate crisis.

That was then. The climate science hasn’t changed. Neither has the scope of the environmental crisis or levels of carbon emissions. The only thing that’s changed is the Republican Party. “Climate change” itself is now a dirty emission rarely uttered from the mouths of Republican leaders. In the “if Obama is for it we’re against it” mentality of the moment, Republicans have decided to side against the health of our families, our economy, our environment, and overwhelming evidence and stand with dirty energy companies (and, ahem, their increasingly un-capped political contributions). And so just as suddenly, where we once were debating what to do about climate change as a nation, now we’re debating whether it even exists. Which is stupid.

Fortunately, the American people are not stupid. According to a recent poll, 67 percent of Americans agree that there is “solid evidence that the earth is warming.” Only 11 percent of Americans think global warming doesn’t exist—in other words, a smaller percentage than the share of Republicans in Congress who hold that view. But the percentage of Americans who believe in climate change has slipped slightly since 2006. That’s not because the science has changed. That’s because Republicans have changed, and are trying to drag public opinion down with them.

This is what makes cutting carbon emissions tough short-term politics. In West Virginia, Democratic Senate candidate Natalie Tennant released a statement regarding President Obama’s new emissions regulations. “I will fight President Obama and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs,” she said.

Going a step further, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, in a tough race for the Senate in Kentucky, is trying to link her Republican opponent with President Obama’s agenda. Grimes accuses Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of failing to stop the government from its “war on coal.” In a statement about the EPA’s new “overreaching regulations,” Grimes said, “When I’m in the U.S. Senate, I will fiercely oppose the President’s attack on Kentucky’s coal industry because protecting our jobs will be my number one priority.”

Certainly President Obama’s climate moves will give candidates something to bicker about. But they will likely not affect these or other 2014 races. After all, in 2012, oil and gas money pumped heavily into defeating Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio—a strong environmentalist—as well as John Tester in Montana, Tim Kaine in Virginia, and Martin Heinrich in New Mexico, all on record supporting action to address climate change. Yet all four candidates prevailed, largely because most voters today are more strongly motivated by other issues.

And that’s where the long-game politics of Obama’s actions come into play. In the short-term, centrist Democrats like Grimes and Tennant will cede ideological terrain to the Republicans who have temporarily yanked the political debate to the right. But in the long-term, Democrats must do something to pull the debate back toward the center; toward basic rational sanity. This is for the good of our county and also so Democrats can stand for something, something that voters—specifically, the young voters of the future—fervently support.

Only 3 percent (PDF) of voters under 35 don’t believe climate change is an issue—far less than the 11 percent among voters overall. And polls show young voters favor action on the environment at rates greater than older generations. In fact, even among young voters who oppose Obama, a strong majority (PDF) support the President taking action to address climate change. Going forward, the future voters of America will flock to the party that stands for equality and takes action against pollution. The Democratic Party needs to reassert these beliefs—and put action behind them—to win the future.

And the Republican Party will keep alienating these voters. One study found that voters under 35 think that politicians who deny climate change are “ignorant,” “out-of-touch,” and “crazy.” Combined with the overall portrait of blocking any action in Congress that doesn’t involve a made-up scandal fishing expedition, the out-of-touch, “party of crazy” label seems to stick. Republicans will ultimately lose elections as the party of crazy, but only if Democrats can reassert themselves as the party of sane. Obama taking much needed, basic, and practical action to reduce carbon emissions is a strategic step in the right direction.