The Obama Footprint

On Monday, President Barack Obama formally unveiled his administration’s Clean Power Plan, an ambitious platform for putting America into the lead in the global fight against global warming and keeping it there for decades to come.

The bill seeks to accelerate the national shift away from carbon-emitting fuels such as coal and natural gas toward zero-emitting renewables like solar and wind. The goal is a 32% cut in emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels.

Obama has referred to the new regulations as “the biggest, most important step we’ve ever taken to combat climate change.” By all accounts, it promises — or threatens, depending on your point of view — to bring about sweeping change in the nation’s energy supply.

If nothing else, one must admire the president’s stamina. After the death struggle over healthcare, and while still on tenterhooks over the Iran deal, President Obama has decided to take on the Republicans once more, this time over energy policy.

But the White House seems undaunted, perhaps even eager for the fray. “This is going to be a big fight and a big issue in our country, and he’s going to go around the country making the case that we’ve got to do something about it,” said a White House official.

Republicans and Democrats are already scrimmaging. Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton has come out for it. “It’s a good plan, and as president, I’d defend it,” she said.

Then, in a comment that echoed the administration’s talking point on Iran, she added, “It will need defending because Republican doubters and defeatists — including every Republican candidate for president — won’t offer any credible solution.”

Nor will the Republicans fail to doubt and try to defeat the plan.

“I hope you will carefully review the consequences before signing up for this deeply misguided plan,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrote to governors in a letter earlier this year.

McConnell urged the governors to hold off submitting plans detailing how they will comply, because he says the regulations won’t hold up in court. The bill’s unprecedented attempt to regulate carbon emissions as a pollutant will face a concerted challenge from the coal industry, which could be badly hurt by the new law.

Its impact on the cost of electricity is a matter of dispute. Opponents say that it will drive electricity rates up; the administration contends that it will lead to cheaper electricity: a drop in the cost for U.S. consumers by an average of $85 a year by 2030. Meanwhile, independent studies have yielded widely disparate estimates.

The question of what impact the Clean Power Plan will have on jobs has been largely missing from the current discussion. This too will challenge the predictive powers of economists on both sides.

But the warnings of the pessimists cannot be disregarded. The National Black Chamber of Commerce said recently that implementation of the new regulations would result in the loss of 200,000 African-American jobs by 2020, with Hispanics suffering more than 300,000 job losses. By 2035, the cumulative job losses for African-Americans would total nearly seven million and for Hispanics over 12 million.

The Great Lakes area, working hard at a comeback, depends heavily on coal-based electricity. Brad Williams and Ed Wolking Jr. of the Detroit Regional Chamber wrote in the Detroit News of the “job-killing consequences such as higher costs and increased regulations to the manufacturers on whom so many livelihoods rely.”

It is commendable that the Clean Power Act contains a “safety valve” entitling states to apply for extensions and other relief should they encounter problems in meeting emission-cutting goals. Congress should make sure that passage should not be possible without specific safeguards for employment, lest working Americans suffer unduly from the same dramatic changes which are intended to benefit them.

Clearly, President Barack Obama is determined to leave his footprint on history by reducing the carbon footprint of the United States.

It is an accepted rule of statecraft not to get too far ahead of the people, not to commit the country to adventurous or risky policies without a clear mandate. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, took heed of strong isolationist sentiment, and did not lead America into World War II until Pearl Harbor, when the majority was aroused for war.

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) alleged last week that the president was unilaterally deciding what’s best for the country, branding the plan a “power grab.”

Obama “wants to be viewed as the world leader on climate change,” Whitfield said. “The reality is he doesn’t care what we think.”

Actually, recent polls suggest that American’s thinking on this issue may be closer to Obama and Clinton than McConnell and Whitfield. In a 2015 Pew Research survey, 46% of adults said that “global warming” was a very serious problem, up from 33% in a 2013 survey. Pew data from November of 2014 found that a 64% majority of U.S. adults favor stricter limits on power plant emissions, while 31% oppose stricter emissions limits for power plants.

Those numbers could change as the national debate intensifies. Obama must take care that the people are with him on this, and not just half the people. The risks are too great for another bitter division.