WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama, declaring that “Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction” on climate change, announced sweeping measures Tuesday to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and prepare the nation for a future of damaging weather aggravated by rising temperatures.
Embracing an issue that could define his legacy but also ignite new battles with Republicans, Obama said he would use his executive powers to require reductions in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the nation’s power plants.
The carbon cuts at power plants are the centerpiece of a three-pronged climate-change plan that will also involve new federal funds to advance renewable energy technology, as well as spending to fortify cities and states against the ravages of storms and droughts aggravated by a changing climate.
Obama waded more deeply than he has before into the dispute over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry heavy crude oil from Alberta to depots and refineries in the Midwest and on the Gulf Coast. He said he would not approve the 1,700-mile pipeline if it was shown that it would “significantly” worsen climate change.
The president’s comments were ambiguous: He did not specify what aspects of the project he was including or what level of climate impact he considers “significant.” Opponents and backers of the pipeline found support for their positions in his remarks.
On the broader climate challenge, however, Obama was unequivocal.
Saying that science had put to rest the debate over whether human activity was responsible for warming the earth, he told an audience at Georgetown University, “The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it is too late.”
“As a president, as a father and as an American, I am here to say, we need to act,” Obama said to students and others gathered in a sunbaked quadrangle, mopping his brow with a handkerchief, as if to dramatize his point. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”
It was by far Obama’s boldest attempt to grapple with one of the seminal challenges of the time. But it also starts a clock ticking, with the president aiming to draft and put into place a complicated set of rules in just two years, to meet his pledge of reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.
Declaring the scientific debate over climate change and its causes obsolete, Obama mocked those who deny that humans are contributing to the warming of the planet.
“We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society,” Obama said.
Republicans were quick to condemn the measures, saying they constituted a government overreach that would constrict energy production and strangle the nation’s economic recovery.
“These policies, rejected even by the last Democratic-controlled Congress, will shutter power plants, destroy good-paying American jobs and raise electricity bills,” the House speaker, John A. Boehner, said in a statement.
The president’s broader proposals were somewhat overshadowed by his reference to Keystone. Boehner’s spokesman, Brendan Buck, said, “The standard the president set today should lead to speedy approval of the Keystone pipeline.”
In a draft environmental impact statement issued in March, the State Department concluded that the net impact of the pipeline on the climate would be small, because even if it was not built, the oil would still be extracted and sold in other markets.
Still, Obama suggested the State Department would have to go further to justify the $7 billion project than it had up to now. The president said the pipeline’s net effects on the climate would be “absolutely critical” to his decision whether to approve it.
Democratic lawmakers who have pushed climate measures were jubilant, with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island saying it could open the door to further congressional action.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., said of Obama’s package, “It’s good for the economy, it’s good for environment, it’s good for the U.S.”