Environmentalists Hail Reduced Emission Rules, Others Criticize

For the first time, the U.S. would regulate the greenhouse gas causing emissions from existing coal plants. The goal is to reduce emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. President Obama's administration hopes his latest climate initiative will influence the United States long after he is gone.

GREENE: The president leaves office at the beginning of 2017, but the goal of the latest regulations is to sharply reduce emissions of gases linked to climate change by the year 2030. States would be given flexibility on how to meet the goals.

INSKEEP: In this part of the program, we'll hear responses to these new rules from the Capitol to coal country. We start with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The president's attempt to regulate carbon emissions is ambitious, and if it withstands legal challenges, it will cement his second-term legacy. It comes after a decades-long struggle to get Congress to approve a global climate treaty or sweeping climate legislation. Like most environmentalists, Mike Brune of the Sierra Club says this is a turning point.

MIKE BRUNE: This is the first time that carbon pollution from power plants has been curtailed. So since 40 percent of the carbon pollution in the United States comes from power plants, it's a historic day.

LIASSON: But critics of the regulations called them futile. Even if they work as planned, anything the U.S. does by itself will have little effect on global carbon pollution. That's true Brune says but...

BRUNE: We believe in American exceptionalism. We think it's important for the United States to lead. And in fact, the United States has been leading over the last several years in cutting our carbon pollution, primarily by switching from dirty fuels to clean energy. So today's rule will accelerate that process and allow for deeper investments, both in energy efficiency but also in solar and wind.

LIASSON: And the administration hopes that may give a U.S. a stronger leg to stand on when it asks China and India - the world's biggest carbon polluters - to cut their emissions. The president himself spoke about the new rules from an unusual location. Instead of going to a power plant, he went to hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hi, everybody. I'm here at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., visiting with some kids being treated here all the time for asthma and other breathing problems. Often these illnesses are aggravated by air pollution, pollution from the same sources that release carbon and contribute to climate change. And for the sake of all our kids, we've got to do more to reduce it.

LIASSON: This is part of the Democrat's new strategy for discussing climate change. Don't talk about melting ice caps - talk about floods, forest fires and asthma. Chris Lehane is a Democratic strategist.

CHRIS LEHANE: As much as I appreciate and respect the importance of butterflies and polar bears, those are abstract issues. When you actually relate this stuff to what people are experiencing in their daily lives - their kids having asthma, people's flood insurance going through the roof, people losing family farms in Iowa because of drought - then you connect with people in just a fundamentally different way.

LIASSON: Democrats may be trying a new way of talking about climate change, but Republicans are confident their party has the stronger hand to play on this issue this year. The Republican message is pretty straightforward.

RON BONJEAN: The administration plans are going to increase fees, cost American jobs and generally lead to economic catastrophe.

LIASSON: That's GOP strategist, Ron Bonjean.

BONJEAN: The Democrats are likely going to be put on defense. They're likely going to have to answer the question, why is President Obama, the leader of their party, declaring a war on coal and calling for higher energy prices?

LIASSON: Republicans aren't willing to say the regulations themselves will turn the tide against Democrats in any of the battleground Senate races this year. But, says GOP pollster Neil Newhouse, they'll make it more difficult for Democrats to reach voters and states that depend on fossil fuel production. Newhouse says voters in those states think President Obama is simply against them.

NEIL NEWHOUSE: It's almost declaring war on their culture and their lifestyle. I mean, we've done focus groups in Kentucky. We've done focus groups in West Virginia. And that's what voters are saying.

LIASSON: That's true in those states this year. But Democrats say they're on the right side of history. Here's why - the fastest-growing parts of the electorate, young people and minorities, believe in global warming. Big parts of the current Republican coalition do not. Chris Lehane advises billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, the Democratic mega-donor who's spending money this year on campaigns in seven states, including Colorado and Virginia.

TOM STEYER: They are all states where climate is impacting folks in a real demonstrable, local way - rising seas in Florida, droughts in Iowa, bad air in different parts of the country. And each of those states are also what we call multiplier states, states that are really important in this election. These, in turn, are going to be really important in 2016 and potentially beyond.

LIASSON: It will take years for the president's new regulations to be implemented and years for the political battle over climate change to be resolved. But President Obama is clearly willing to accept some short-term political pain in exchange for a long-term legacy on the environment. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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