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5 key details from Obama's big climate change speech
The president gave a forceful speech about cutting carbon emissions. Will it be enough to appease green activists?
 
The president talks global warming on a blistering summer day.
The president talks global warming on a blistering summer day. Getty Images

On Tuesday, President Obama, sweating slightly in the Washington D.C. sun in front of a receptive crowd at Georgetown University, laid out his strategy to fight climate change.

His plan, detailed earlier in a 21-page outline, focuses on three main areas: Cutting carbon pollution, preparing the United States for the effects of climate change, and coordinating the U.S. effort with other countries. Obama is looking to essentially side-step Congress, relying on the EPA's power to regulate climate change under the Clean Air Act.

"This is a challenge that doesn't pause for partisan gridlock," Obama said. "It demands our attention now."

Liberals, of course, will want to see results before they give credit to Obama for fighting climate change. He made big promises in the 2008 campaign. (Remember how "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal"?) But with the death of cap-and-trade in the Senate in 2010, and Obama's hesitance to put the kibosh on the Keystone XL pipeline, green activists have been less than enthused about the White House's record on the environment.

During his speech, Obama remained noncommittal on the pipeline, saying that "our national interest will be served only if this pipeline does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem." No doubt Democrats and Republicans will quibble over what the word "significantly" means.

Speaking of the GOP, it has already framed Obama's climate change plan as the president abandoning "any pretense of an 'all of the above energy plan'" and stepping up his "effort to bankrupt the coal industry."

So what exactly can Obama do without the help of Congress? Here, five key details:

1. Institute new carbon pollution standards on power plants
This is the most ambitious — and most vague — part of Obama's proposal. Power plants produce 40 percent of the country's carbon dioxide. Putting limits on carbon pollution from power plants would be a huge step toward reaching the White House's goal of cutting greenhouse emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

"Today, for the sake of our children, I'm directing the EPA to set higher carbon pollution standards," Obama said.

The president's language concerning specific policy, however, was very vague. The White House has not said how, when, or how strictly it will regulate power plants. Officially, Obama is "issuing a Presidential Memorandum directing the Environmental Protection Agency to work expeditiously to complete carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants."

While light on specifics, the fact that it includes "existing power plants" is a big deal, considering that the EPA only has the power to regulate carbon pollutants in new power plants. The lack of federal limits, Obama said, is "not right, it's not fair, and it needs to stop."

New regulations, if started today, could take years to implement.

2. Encourage more clean energy production
Obama's plan also calls for $8 billion in loan guarantees for clean energy projects and a vast increase in the number of permits for renewable energy projects on public lands. Since 2009, the White House claimed, enough solar, wind, and geothermal facilities were built to power 4.4 million homes.

3. Create new energy efficiency standards
One thing green activists have applauded Obama for is increasing fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, something he claimed on Tuesday that he would continue by creating stricter standards for heavy-duty trucks. The White House also wants to create new efficiency standards for appliances that would cut 3 billion metric tons of carbon pollution by 2030.

4. Prepare for the changes that are already happening
Obama repeatedly invoked Hurricane Sandy on Tuesday as evidence that climate change was already affecting the weather. His message? It's happening now, so the United States might as well prepare for it.

That involves, apparently, creating task forces to analyze the problem, giving local authorities federal assistance, and providing $200 million in award money to communities that build infrastructure with "enhanced preparedness" for climate change-related disasters.

5. Cut funding for fossil fuel subsidies and new coal power plants overseas
The White House claimed that international fossil fuel subsidies cost the United States $500 billion every year — an amount it said it's looking to cut from the 2014 budget. Obama also claimed that the United States was going to stop financing new coal power plants overseas, with the exception of plants in poor countries that have no other economically feasible option.

All of this doesn't add up to the most detailed plan ever, but the president's tone at least signified that he was serious about fighting climate change.

"I don't have much patience for anyone who says this problem isn't real," Obama said. "We don't have time for a meeting of the flat-Earth society."

 
Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at TheWeek.com covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.

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