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So Obama's In The White House. What Next?

Barack Obama's inaugural speech yesterday spent more time dwelling on energy and environmental issues than, well, any inaugural speech in recent memory. (Surely it was the first to hype "electric grids," no?) But even at this point, there's still plenty of guesswork involved in figuring out exactly how Obama's domestic-policy agenda will unfurl. We know the bulky outlines: He wants to pass a big spending package to stimulate the economy, pursue health care reform, augment support for clean energy, and slap some sort of price on carbon. That's the big-ticket stuff. We just don't know the timing, or what precise policy instruments will be chosen.

But here's one educated guess. The Wall Street Journal today speculates that it'll play out like so: First, the administration will cram all sorts of spending for clean energy, home weatherization, electric grids, and so forth in the stimulus bill. Then the big health care push begins in March. Then maybe they'll push through a renewable portfolio standard, requiring states to get such-and-such percentage of their power from wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and so forth by such-and-such a date. The price on carbon, though, may get shelved for the time being:

Broader action on climate change to control carbon emissions is also on the agenda but may wait until later in the year. The so-called cap-and-trade legislation is opposed by industry, and even some advocates think it will be difficult to complete this year.

Oddly enough, it may turn out that Congress puts pressure on Obama to act on climate change, rather than the reverse. Last week, Henry Waxman announced that he was gunning to pass a cap-and-trade bill out of his House committee by Memorial Day. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the relevant Senate committee, quickly fired off a press release praising Waxman and promising to "complete a set of principles for my new legislation in the coming weeks"—legislation that will presumably seek even deeper cuts than the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill, which got stalled by filibuster last year.

That means it'll soon be time to wrangle over the details. The U.S. Climate Action Partnership—a consortium of companies like Dow, Dupont, Alcoa, Shell, BP and environmental groups like Environmental Defense Fund and NRDC—released their proposal for a cap-and-trade regime last week. But, as Brad Johnson noted at the Wonk Room, the emissions targets in that bill may be too flimsy, aiming to pare emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020. The head of the IPCC, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, gently criticized Obama recently for endorsing this too-weak target, and argued—pleaded, really—that the United States needs to go lower quicker, since the Earth's climate appears to be changing more rapidly than anyone feared. More troubling still, the U.S. CAP proposal also leans heavily on carbon offsets, which, as we've noted before, are frequently bogus, hard to regulate, and will likely be nothing more than a massive loophole for polluters.

Against critiques of the U.S. CAP plan, though, comes this must-read letter from NRDC's David Hawkins, whose group helped craft the proposal. Hawkins defends the plan and says that environmentalists need "a serious political strategy for overcoming the claims and anxieties about the costs of doing what the science justifies." NRDC, for its part, is trying to rope in companies like Shell and Dupont, but that means compromising on things like offsets. If that's unacceptable (and I agree it is), then what's the alternative strategy for delivering votes in Congress? Grassroots organizing by groups like 1sky? Public-awareness blitzes like Al Gore's We Campaign? One can hope, but it's still unclear.

Meanwhile, there's the international angle to consider. During Steven Chu's confirmation hearings, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh noted that any political momentum behind a stringent climate bill in the United States will quickly evaporate if China doesn't agree to big cuts, too. Joe Romm has a great post on this, and bilateral talks with China ought to be a top priority for Hillary Clinton over at the State Department. Ultimately, though, no one knows how the sequencing on any of this will work—Congress wants China to move first on emission caps, and China wants Congress to move first. The Obama administration will, essentially, have to negotiate with both of them at the same time. Maybe a good time to stock up on aspirin...

--Bradford Plumer