Forum: How Daring is Obama’s New Climate Plan?

President Obama has unveiled a proposal to combat global warming that would, for the first time, regulate carbon dioxide emissions from all U.S. coal-fired power plants. Yale Environment 360 asked a group of experts to assess the president’s climate strategy.

Stymied by Congress, and no longer weighed down by concerns about re-election, President Barack Obama decided last month to take assertive action on climate change, unveiling a host of administrative actions to regulate carbon emissions, encourage the development of renewable energy, promote energy efficiency, and prepare the country to adapt to a warmer world.

To judge how effective the president’s climate plan might be, Yale Environment 360 asked a panel of policy makers, environmentalists, and scientists to answer the following questions: Do you think President Obama’s recently announced climate change plan will make a major contribution to reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and, in particular, do you think he will succeed in regulating CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants by the end of his term?

Michael Mann

Michael Mann, climate scientist and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center.

Ultimately, we need a comprehensive energy and climate policy that prices carbon pollution and levels the playing field for renewable sources of energy that are not degrading our climate and planet. But given that we have an intransigent Congress (the current House Science Committee leadership continues to deny even the existence of human-caused climate change), the president has been forced to turn to executive actions. His call for carbon emission limits on all coal-fired power plants, not just newly built plants, is a bold step forward. It will go some way to stemming our growing carbon emissions and the impact they are having on our climate. The president’s comments about the Keystone XL pipeline are also encouraging. He indicated that he will block the pipeline if it is going to lead to increased carbon emissions. Since all objective analyses indicated that the construction of the pipeline will lead to increased carbon emissions (because it will lead to far greater extraction of Canadian tar sands oil), this should translate to a decision not to move forward on that project. Finally, the president spelled out promising ways forward to (a) introduce greater incentives for renewable, non-carbon based energy, (b) reduce energy usage/improve energy efficiency, and (c) adapt to those climate change impacts which are already locked in and unavoidable. All in all, it is the most aggressive and promising climate plan to come out of the executive branch in years.

Jane Long

Jane C. S. Long, chairman, California’s Energy Future Study, The California Council on Science and Technology.

The president’s plan aims to eliminate emissions from electricity by invoking the Clean Air Act. But emissions from electricity are already being reduced without any government interference because of plentiful, inexpensive natural gas. And the good news is that gas has half the emissions of the coal it displaces, so some like to call natural gas the “bridge fuel.” The bad news is also that gas has half the emissions of coal. These emissions have to go, too, because the climate problem will continue to get worse until we stop all emissions. To get off the other end of the gas bridge, either emissions from natural gas generation will have to be captured and sequestered away from the atmosphere or we will have to plan to stop using any fossil fuel, including gas. Using no fossil fuel means relying on renewable energy or nuclear power. Putting all our bets on renewable energy could mean significant delays in reducing emissions. The president’s plan calls for the EPA to negotiate a timeline for emissions reductions with each individual state. If Obama is to significantly reduce emissions as quickly as possible, he needs to couple his legal approach with investments and policies that promote all forms of emission-free electricity, including carbon capture and storage and nuclear power, not just renewable energy.

Michael Gerrard

Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Center for Climate Change Law.

Regardless of attempts by opponents of these regulations to obtain relief in Congress and the courts, the fact that President Obama has for the first time put EPA on a timetable to issue them sends a strong signal to the generating industry. It means that in addition to the competition from natural gas, and the prospect of expensive new rules on coal ash, cooling water, and conventional and toxic air pollutants, coal-fired power plants now face a good chance of yet another layer of restrictions. Few if any plans for new plants have been in the works for several years, thanks mostly to cheap natural gas; the principal effect of the anticipated rules will be on generator decisions whether to spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading old plants that are nearing the end of their useful lives. Even more of these units, which tend to be the dirtiest, will now be retired. Thus even before the rules complete the tortuous process of taking full effect, they will have a tangible impact on greenhouse gas emissions by inducing more owners to accelerate the retirement of their older units.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben, author, Scholar in Residence at Middlebury College, and founder of

I think the biggest effect of his plan is to get us off the dime. Given the science, we need much steeper reductions than what the current plan entails. But most of all we need a start that breaks the logjam. That’s why the remarks on Keystone and divestment were as important as the remarks on coal — if he blocks Keystone, for instance, then he’ll be the first world leader to stop a project based on its effects on the climate. That’s both a legacy and an opening bid in renewed climate negotiations. It will demonstrate credibility.

Nicolas Loris

Nicolas Loris, senior policy analyst, The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

President Obama’s climate plan would have a chilling effect on the economy, not the environment. If the Environmental Protection Agency moves forward on greenhouse gas regulations for new and existing power plants, which would particularly impact coal, it will cost more to heat and cool your home, to cook your meals, to light your home. Phasing out coal, electricity prices would increase 20 percent and cause a family of four to lose more than $1,000 in annual income.

Higher energy prices would ripple through the economy. Consumers would have less money to spend. Businesses would face higher operating costs and pass those costs on to the consumer. As the economy is squeezed from both ends, Heritage found that significantly reducing coal as a source of energy would destroy more than 500,000 jobs by 2030.

All of this economic pain would come with no real impact on the climate. Even if the U.S. stopped emitting all carbon dioxide today (virtually halting all economic activity), the Science and Public Policy Institute found that the global temperature would decrease by 0.17 degrees Celsius by 2100.

The president is right to say that we can have economic growth and an improved environment. But this isn’t the plan to do it.

Carol Browner

Carol Browner, senior fellow, Center for American Progress, and former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy in the Obama administration.

President Obama has outlined a practical, common sense plan to address climate change by cutting carbon pollution from power plants, boosting investments in renewable fuels, and improving efficiency and conservation efforts. Power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S., responsible for forty percent of the climate change-fueling pollution, and there are no existing limits on how much they can dump into the air. If we are serious about meeting our obligation to future generations to address climate change, cutting carbon pollution from power plants has to be part of the plan. We do not have to choose between a strong economy and a healthy environment. We can have both. We’ve seen that with the clean cars standard we achieved in the first term and with previous clean air standards for acid rain, CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons], smog, soot, and clean diesel fuel. President Obama’s climate change plan can and will achieve similar economic benefits. In fact, we can cut carbon pollution from power plants while adding over 200,000 new jobs and saving the average American family a little bit of money on their electric bills, according to a new analysis released by the Natural Resources Defense Council and business and labor groups.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are, respectively, the president and chairman of The Breakthrough Institute, a think tank based in Oakland, California.

Three years after the collapse of efforts to pass cap-and-trade legislation in the U.S. Congress, U.S. emissions are well below those that would have been mandated by the cap. Indeed, since 2007, U.S. emissions have fallen faster than those of any other nation in the world, thanks to our glut of cheap natural gas. It will be several years before any of President Obama’s proposed carbon dioxide regulations for coal plants are finalized and perhaps more to wind their way through the courts before they take effect. But while regulating emissions through the federal Clean Air Act is viewed by many as a less than optimal way to reduce emissions, the reality is that the regulations proposed by the President will functionally have the same effect as either proposed cap-and-trade legislation or a carbon tax — modestly accelerating America’s transition from coal to gas.

The move from coal to gas is a welcome transition. Natural gas is better than coal on every human and environmental measure, including mortality, damages, air pollution, water pollution, and water use. But in recognizing the benefits of this shift, we should also keep in mind its limits. Gas is helping drive U.S. emissions down but those gains are limited. Regulations can help that shift along but are unlikely to bring us the cheap, zero-carbon technologies that will be necessary to achieve much deeper emissions. Ultimately, developing better zero-carbon technologies will determine how much emissions reduction regulations and pricing policies will be capable of achieving.

Mary Anne Hitt

Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

President Obama’s climate plan, with carbon pollution standards for coal plants as its centerpiece, is a roadmap that could help us finally curb climate change. But whether or not his plan will actually reduce carbon emissions is now up to us. The president’s plan is a testament to the grassroots climate movement. For more than a decade, more than 100 organizations have worked to tackle our biggest source of carbon pollution: coal plants. 149 coal plants have announced their retirement since 2010, and clean energy like wind and solar are powering the nation at record levels. Meanwhile, EPA safeguards limiting power plant carbon emissions are required by the Clean Air Act, have been upheld by the Supreme Court, and are strongly supported by the American public. Not surprisingly, polluters are already lobbying hard for a weak standard. But we will push for strong safeguards, while also tackling other key climate issues left out of the president’s plan, including natural gas fracking, mountaintop removal, and the sweetheart deal for coal companies on public lands. President Obama’s plan is the beginning of a crucial new chapter in our climate fight — one we all have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to shape.