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As the World Burns

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For the nation's dirtiest carbon polluters, the election of President Obama was not good news. Big-energy interests had a real pal in George W. Bush, but during the 2008 campaign, Obama put the fate of the planet above the fate of the fossil-fuel industry. America's oil addiction, he declared, is "one of the greatest challenges of our generation."

Even before the election was over, those who had the candidate's ear were urging Obama to move quickly to enact climate legislation. In a lengthy memo to the campaign, an experienced veteran of the climate wars advised that the incoming president would "be able to claim a mandate to lead boldly" on carbon pollution. The memo recommended that Obama take immediate steps to design a plan of attack by setting up a SWAT team of key advisers and congressional leaders. "The president must seize the debate," the memo warned, "before others hijack or derail it."

Obama's first moves on the climate front were encouraging. He appointed Carol Browner, head of the EPA under Bill Clinton and a close confidante of Al Gore, as "climate czar," and he named Steven Chu, a respected scientist who understood the need to confront global warming, as energy secretary. A month after taking office, he also moved to implement a 2007 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court empowering the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The threat to Big Coal and Big Oil was implicit: If energy interests balked at working with Congress to create a new system to curb carbon pollution, the administration would simply unleash federal regulators. "If Congress does nothing," warned Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was spearheading climate legislation as chair of the Senate environment committee, "we will be watching EPA do our job."

Obama also had something else going for him: The man he had defeated for president was one of the chief backers of a bipartisan plan to rein in climate-warming pollution. It was widely assumed that John McCain, who had co-sponsored a plan known as "cap and trade" with Democrat Joe Lieberman back in 2003, would be a crucial ally in selling tough, effective carbon limits to his GOP colleagues in the Senate. At root, cap-and-trade is a fairly simple idea: The government sets an economywide cap on carbon-dioxide emissions by issuing a fixed number of permits for carbon pollution each year. Those permits can then be traded on the open market, enabling polluters to decide for themselves whether it's cheaper to cut emissions or buy permits. The same approach worked spectacularly well in curbing acid rain two decades ago, reducing sulfur dioxide pollution far faster and cheaper than anyone had anticipated. Celebrated as one of the great success stories of the environmental movement, the program has spawned a number of imitators, including a European market for carbon emissions that got under way in 2005, as well as a statewide carbon-trading system under development in California. That's not to say there aren't problems with cap-and-trade; tracking CO2 from millions of sources poses a daunting challenge, and granting too many loopholes known as "carbon offsets" could render the entire system meaningless. But the plan enjoyed wide support among environmentalists, economists and business leaders as the fastest, cheapest and most politically viable way to cut climate-warming pollution. "The most important thing," Chu told Rolling Stone last spring, "is to get the architecture in place and to begin to move in a new direction."

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