On June 2, President Obama is expected to announce his new EPA rules on extant coal-fired power plants. As Jonathan Chait points out in an excellent background piece on the legal issues, this will be the centerpiece of his second-term agenda. How strong these rules are, and whether or not his administration manages to guide them successfully through the bureaucratic gauntlet, may well outstrip ObamaCare in historical importance.
In another good piece, Chait outlines why the political blowback from these rules is likely to be very bad:
Republicans are likely to have the better of the debate politically. Support for regulating carbon emissions may be broad, but it's tissue-thin — Americans rank climate change near or at the bottom of their priorities. A 2011 survey found the amount an average American would pay in higher electricity costs for the sake of clean energy to be a pitiably low $162 a year. The absence of an extended, ObamaCare-style legislative slog will help Obama's case, but years of lengthy court battles won't. Opponents may manage to sustain state-level challenges and overwhelming red-state resistance. [New York]
It's an all too convincing argument. However, I think the political forecast is not quite so dire as he makes out, for two reasons: El Niño, and the fact that the weakened coal industry is already teetering. Knowing Republicans, there is probably nothing that will forestall an enraged GOP backlash, but these two facts might take some of the wind out of their turbines.
First: El Niño. It's a deeply complex and still not fully understood phenomenon (Brad Plumer has a nice explanation here), but the bumper sticker idea is that the surface of the tropical Pacific gets much warmer than usual. Scientists are now giving it about a 75 percent chance that El Niño will develop over the next few months. This matters for the politics, because it means it will get hot.
El Niño is strongly correlated with high surface temperatures — both 2010 and 1998, the first- and second-hottest years ever measured, respectively, were El Niño years. Last month tied for the hottest April of all time, and this summer could be even hotter. (And down the road, 2015 will almost certainly break the record for hottest year ever recorded, possibly by a lot.)
As Nate Cohn explains, extreme heat tends to shift belief in climate change, especially when combined with El Niño's typical bouts of extreme weather. This is a bit silly, scientifically speaking (a cold winter doesn't disprove global warming), but it does seem to have a robust political effect.
Second is the weak position of the coal industry. Though it has made a small comeback in the last year or so, its long-term decline is almost certainly unstoppable. For most of the Obama era, it has been hammered by cheap natural gas and regulations on heavy metals, resulting in dozens of plant closures.
Solar is now so cheap that it is becoming a legitimate threat. Almost one-third of all new electricity generation was solar last year. The carbon barons are fighting a desperate rearguard action to legislate solar out of the market, but if prices continue to fall (as they are predicted to do) these kinds of actions will be ever more unjustifiable. Increasingly, coal is simply an antiquated and crummy way to generate electricity.
Of course, these trends don't guarantee that the EPA regulations will come out unscathed. But they will shift the political terrain. Just like it's hard to argue in favor of deregulation during a financial crisis, it will be harder to argue against climate regulations during record-smashing heat waves. And while Republicans would dearly love to burn every single gram of coal on the planet, they'll have a harder time time doing it if Big Coal is simply losing in the market.