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Obama's Climate Change Speech Sounds Like a B.F.D.

It’s shaping up as a pretty big news week. The Senate is voting on immigration reform, the Supreme Court is handing down potentially historic decisions, the George Zimmerman trial is getting underway, and, somewhere on the planet, Edward Snowden is making a run for it.

Even so, make sure you pay attention to what President Obama says on Tuesday, when he talks about climate change in a speech at Georgetown University. The announcement Obama makes is likely to be big f***ing deal—maybe even the biggest f***ing deal of his second term—although it's not clear whether progressives will realize it, let alone how they'll react.

Tuesday’s speech is expected to address climate change broadly—why it’s a threat not just to public health but also to the economy, how the administration plans to deal with it, and so on. But, as first reported by Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post over the weekend, the big news will be something more specific. Obama will announce his intention to limit, via regulation, carbon pollution that comes from existing power plants. 

The key word here is "existing." The Environmental Protection Agency has already imposed such regulations on vehicles and is (over)due to finalize similar regulations for newly constructed power plants. But regulating emissions from power plants already in operation would arguably be the most important step of all. Thanks mostly to pollution from coal, those existing plants are responsible for about one-third of all greenhouse gases produced in the U.S. (Automobiles are responsible for about one-fifth of our greenhouse gases, to give you some sense of scale.)

The White House hasn't made public exactly what the president will say, let alone what kind of regulations he has in mind or how long he'd give agencies to develop them. (Some of those answers will come Tuesday.) But it's no great mystery what Obama is hoping to achieve, because he and his allies have said it many times. During the 2009 international climate summit, the U.S. set a target for emissions—a 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels, achieved by 2020. Obama and his allies want to put the U.S. on track to hit that target. 

Doing so would be a worthy achievement for its own sake. The U.S. is the world’s second largest producer of greenhouse gases, and, until very recently, it was the first. The fewer emissions that the U.S. produces, the slower the planet cooks.

But that’s not the only reason to reduce carbon emissions by regulating those old, dirty power plants. The U.S. and other nations have agreed to finalize a climate agreement in 2015, at another upcoming summit. If, by then, the U.S. is on track to fulfill its previous pledge, other nations might be more inclined to agree to more reductions of their own. Many experts believe that round of international negotiations represents the next, and maybe the last, great chance to avoid some serious and potentially devastating changes to the climate—among them, more severe weather like droughts, floods, and storms.

Obama once hoped to achieve these reductions through legislation. But while the House managed to pass a cap-and-trade bill in 2009, back when Nancy Pelosi was in charge, the Senate couldn’t do the same, thanks primarily to opposition from conservatives and lawmakers from coal-producing states. That makes regulation Obama’s best, and only, option. But while the EPA has authority to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act—as Grist’s David Roberts keeps pointing out, the law actually requires EPA to act—the rule-making process would inevitably stir up serious legal and political opposition.

House Speaker John Boehner has reacted to news of Obama’s speech by saying action on climate change “is absolutely crazy. … Why would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill more American jobs at a time when American people are asking, 'Where are the jobs.'” Notwithstanding the substantive merits of these claims, or lack thereof, you can safely assume that Republicans challenging vulnerable Democratic lawmakers in 2014 will make similar arguments on the campaign trail—and that, behind closed doors, lobbyists for industries opposed to new limits will be threatening to support these candidates with donations and independent expenditures. “This issue is going to be at the very forefront, particularly in our federal races,” West Virginia GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas told Politico's James Hohmann. “Any Democrat is going to have to have some form of allegiance to the Democratic establishment to receive support. The carbon issue will be the first question anyone is asked here in the Senate race. … This issue is yet another one that backs them into a corner.”

This isn’t surprising: Republicans have fought Obama on environmental policy just as hard as they’ve fought him on economic policy, even though he has frequently adopted policies—like cap-and-trade—that at least some prominent Republicans once supported. The question now is whether Obama’s supporters are going to fight back with equal vigor. And that’s far from clear.

Assuming Obama makes the announcement everybody is anticipating, Washington’s most influential environmental groups are likely to cheer. From the sounds of things, Obama's approach will be very similar to one that the National Resources Defense Council has proposed. Approval should also come from influential writers like Roberts and Jonathan Chait, who accurately predicted that Obama would opt for this strategy and suggested that it would cement his legacy as “the environmental president.” (Jon's article on this is the best primer I've read.) But you can already feel the undertow from the left: New regulations are nice, these critics will say, but they’re no substitute for cap-and-trade or a carbon tax. And putting limits on power plants won’t do any good if, as seems entirely possible, Obama ends up approving the controversial Keystone pipeline that would promote new, pollution-heavy drilling of the Canadian oil sands.

On both counts, environmental activists have a point. A carbon tax or something like it really would have more far-reaching effects than what Obama is likely to propose on Tuesday. And approval of the Keystone pipeline really would have serious consequences for the environment, effectively undoing some of the progress that new, tighter regulations on power plants would achieve.  

But degree matters and so does context. Obama doesn’t have a magic wand to wave over Congress. Cap-and-trade ran into some of the same political obstacles—the filibuster, Republican opposition to anything with Obama’s name on it—that stopped so many other worthy initiatives he and his allies have endorsed.As for Keystone, writers like Chait, Roberts, and the Washington Post’s Brad Plumer have made the case that the damage, while real, would ultimately matter less than tough new regulations on power plants. They know a lot more about climate change than I do—and I’m inclined to think they are right. "You can't really compare the two moves yet, because we don't know yet the standard he's applying to the power plants," says Dan Weiss, an environmental specialist at the Center for American Progress and critic of Keystone. "But whatever Obama decides on Keystone, this is a huge step forward.”

That doesn’t mean progressives should stop making noise about Keystone, any more than they should give up the campaign for a carbon tax. (As Mike Grunwald puts it, "There are many climate problems a President can’t solve. ... Keystone isn’t one of them.") But if Obama makes the major announcement on power plants everybody expects and if the federal agencies follow through on his instructions, environmentalists would do their cause real damage by reacting nonchalantly—particularly if that ambivalence carries over to the next congressional campaign.

It’s hard enough getting lawmakers, even the progressives, to take political risks over climate change. It will be even harder if the lawmakers who take those risks get no political support for their efforts.

Barack Obama's Climate Change Plan by The New Republic

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at the New Republic. Follow Jonathan on twitter @CitizenCohn