To know what the United States is really doing on climate change, look past the political theater

Photo of U.S. Capitol

The U.S. Clean Power Plan – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program to cut carbon pollution from the country’s largest emitting sector, electric generating stations – is here to stay. Image: cropped photo from Flickr/ USCapitol.

It’s always hard to interpret political maneuvering in other countries. Governments resign, coalitions form, legislation means something other than what it seems to mean. So in the coming weeks, when newspapers around the world run headlines saying “U.S. Congress Votes to Overturn Clean Power Plan,” their readers may be forgiven for some confusion about America’s position coming into the Paris climate talks.

The first and most important thing to understand is that the Clean Power Plan – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program to cut carbon pollution from our largest emitting sector, electric generating stations – is here to stay. Bills to “block” the Plan may pass the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, but they will go no further. That is because those bills cannot become law unless President Obama signs them. He has made it abundantly clear that he won’t agree to dismantle his leading climate initiative.

The second thing to know is that public support for U.S. leadership on climate is strong. Opponents did manage to push a resolution through the U.S. Senate recently, but as my EDF colleague Jeremy Symons pointed out, it had fewer votes than a similar effort last year, thanks in part to strong public support for the rule. Indeed, the Clean Power Plan is part of larger American move towards clean energy and carbon limits. Ten states (including California and New York), representing a large slice of the U.S. economy, now have successful market-based limits on climate pollution.

Those not familiar with the American system might worry that, despite the current strong political position, the 2016 election could lead to the EPA rule’s undoing. And it’s true, election have consequences.

[pullquote]The U.S. is emerging as a world leader in cutting climate pollution.[/pullquote]

But the Clean Power Plan is based on the bipartisan Clean Air Act, which has withstood numerous attacks across political cycles over its more than forty years of existence. In the case of climate change, the U.S. Supreme Court has specifically ruled that EPA has a responsibility to address greenhouse gas emissions — meaning that under the law, a future President can’t simply refuse to regulate them. The United States already has tailpipe standards in place for climate pollution from new cars and trucks. Power plants, the largest source of emissions in the U.S., are the logical and inevitable next step. Moreover, the Clean Power Plan is the product of an extensive years-long process of careful regulatory development, buttressed with ample public consultation and comment. Any attempt to undo it would have to go through a similar process — and then withstand the scrutiny of the courts.

An effort to weaken the CPP would not only face administrative and legal hurdles, it would also introduce significant uncertainties that could be harmful to electric power companies and the customers they serve. Indeed, many companies, understanding the fundamental shift taking place in the U.S., have already incorporated a switch to clean energy in their long term investment strategies. The CEO of American Electric Power Company, one of the nation’s largest utilities, calls the Clean Power Plan a “catalyst for the transformation that’s already occurring in our industry.”

The reality is that current talk of blocking the Clean Power Plan is pure political theater. So are attempts in Congress to undermine efforts to forge a global agreement on climate. The Paris talks are the latest step along a path set by the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. Under that treaty, negotiated by President George H.W. Bush and ratified with the unanimous consent of the Senate, the U.S. committed to adopt policies limiting emissions, to report regularly on those policies, and to maintain and publish emissions inventories. U.S. obligations under the Paris agreement would be premised on those existing commitments, as well as on authorities established under other legislation already enacted by Congress, such that no new congressional action is needed.

Crucially, the approach taken in negotiating the new agreement has emphasized that all nations have a role to play in addressing climate change. Over 170 countries have submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or “INDCs.” That universal approach squarely addresses the main concern Congress had with the Kyoto Protocol: that it committed the U.S. to take on emissions targets without requiring China and other fast-growing emitters to do so.

The United States will choose its own best path to contribute. But global action is good for our economy (as we create markets for clean technologies) and it is essential for doing all we can to address climate change with the urgency that is needed. Some in Congress will try to stop the U.S. from helping the world’s poorest countries fight climate change, but cooler heads know that’s short-sighted: the fact is, when other countries cut carbon pollution, it helps our economy and our climate too.

Those who follow American politics generally, and Congressional debates in particular, will recognize the script. Speeches are made, Congress votes, and the Clean Power Plan moves forward. Those watching around the world should look past the theater to the really important story: The U.S. is emerging as a world leader in cutting climate pollution.

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