Last year, Inhofe used this strategy in a failed effort to stop new mercury rules on coal plants. But the battle over carbon emissions will be much bigger – and even if Republicans lose, the fight could wind up costing some coal-state Democrats their seats, and the White House is certainly aware that the battle could even cost the party control of the Senate in 2014. (Democrats, who currently hold an eight-seat majority, have 20 seats up for re-election – including at least three from coal states like Illinois and West Virginia.) "This is not a fight he should have in the closet," says Podesta. "He needs to make the case, openly and forcefully, about why these regulations are necessary."
Beyond establishing tough carbon standards, the EPA will be crucial in other battles that are key to addressing the climate crisis – especially in establishing new rules to monitor and control methane leaks from oil and gas wells. In the short term, methane is 70 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon. And by some accounts, the amount of methane that escapes from drilling and pumping operations is so large that it makes natural gas no better for the climate than coal. "Fugitive methane is the biggest unknown of all the U.S. emissions sources," says Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund. "Getting a better measurement of it, then figuring out ways to cap it, could have a big impact on the climate in the short term."
Climate policy can't be all stick, of course – there have to be carrots, too. One is to fund more research into clean energy – but in this era of debt ceilings and fiscal cliffs, it's clear that Congress is not going to allow billions to be lavished on renewable energy. Post-Hurricane Sandy, it's more likely that money will be found for infrastructure projects that can help "climate-proof" major cities by burying power lines and building new storm barriers. It's also possible that something interesting could emerge from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, whose new chairman, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, has a reputation for working well with Republicans. One possibility under consideration: a national clean-energy standard, which would mandate that a certain percentage of electricity in each state be generated from low-carbon sources. The president called for such a standard in his 2012 State of the Union address, but Congress largely ignored him. Now, with booming solar and wind-energy growth in red states – 75 percent of U.S. wind capacity is in Republican congressional districts – the time may be right. "Of all the legislative initiatives," says Podesta, "I think a clean-energy standard has the best shot."
The last area where Obama could make real progress is on the international front. Environmental activists were thrilled when the president nominated John Kerry, one of the most knowledgeable and committed climate advocates in the Senate, as secretary of state. In the past, most international climate talks have occurred under the auspices of the United Nations. But Obama and Kerry don't necessarily need to reach out to the entire international community. "If we want to make a global impact, we just need to cut a deal with China," says Wirth. China and the U.S. alone, he points out, account for more than 40 percent of global carbon pollution.
Wirth, who served with Kerry in the Senate and considers him a close friend, thinks we could strike a short-term deal with both India and China to reduce methane leaks from oil and gas wells, or to phase out HFCs, industrial waste that traps up to 11,700 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. "It wouldn't solve the climate crisis, but it would be a step in the right direction," Wirth says. "Kerry understands that the best way to unlock the stalemate in Washington is through Beijing. Once we have China on board, that kills the whole argument that cutting carbon in the U.S. would give China an economic advantage."
But in the end, no matter what kind of deal the administration makes with China or how tough the EPA gets on coal plants, the harsh truth is that it won't be enough to defuse the climate crisis. Unless he takes a bold stance and fights for a more sweeping solution like a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax, the best Obama can do is to help limit the pain and expense we pass on to future generations. But the president knows there is little political upside to spending his last years in office focused on a gloomy subject like climate change. Instead, he has opted to wage his next legislative battle over immigration, an issue that has the potential to expand the Democratic base among Hispanic voters. Making real progress on global warming would require Obama to do something he has shown little inclination for: leading a massive grassroots campaign to rally the American people and overcome the fear-mongering of the fossil-fuel industry and its Republican allies. "You can argue that, in the long run, it will serve Obama and the Democrats well to be the pro-reality party," says Podesta. "But in the end, you just have to take action because it's the right thing to do."
This story is from the January 31st, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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