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Climate Activists Put the Heat on Obama

Obama already has it in his power to slash greenhouse gas emissions and thereby limit the damage climate change inflicts in the years ahead. But will he exercise that power?

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A much more ambitious plan comes from the Center for Biological Diversity, which is urging the EPA to “set a national pollution cap of no more than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide,” says Kassie Siegel, director of the center’s Climate Law Institute. Siegel and the center have long described the Clean Air Act as one of the nation’s most powerful tools against climate change—a point they repeatedly tried to make to environmental colleagues, the Obama administration and the media during the cap-and-trade fiasco, to little effect. Now that Congress is recognized as a dead end for climate policy, will that position attract more support? Already, forty-seven US cities representing 18 million people have passed the center’s “Clean Air Cities” resolution, calling on the EPA to impose the 350 ppm cap. “We haven’t succeeded yet, but we will,” Siegel says. “When people are marching in the street demanding action, the EPA will act.”

If the EPA does issue tough new greenhouse gas rules, congressional Republicans will doubtless try to block their implementation, but Obama could overcome them. Indeed, this scenario played out twice recently, when the EPA issued rules on coal plants’ mercury emissions and then on their interstate air pollution. Under the Congressional Review Act, explains Nathan Willcox of Environment America, the Senate can block any rule promulgated by the executive branch with a simple majority of fifty-one votes. In that case, however, the measure goes to the president, who can veto it painlessly, for such measures cannot be attached to other legislation. Opponents would need a two-thirds majority of the Senate—sixty-seven votes—to override the veto.

In short, Barack Obama already has it in his power to slash greenhouse gas emissions and thereby limit the damage climate change inflicts in the years ahead. But will he exercise that power? Activists can pressure him and appeal to his legacy, but in the end, the choice is Obama’s to make. And the activists are right: future historians—if there is a future on this rapidly overheating planet—will judge him accordingly.

Mark Hertsgaard, the environment correspondent for The Nation, is the author of six books, including "Earth Odyssey: Around the World In Search of Our Environmental Future" and, most recently, "HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth."
 
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