ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say, yes, we did.
RATH: President Obama from the State of the Union address. Of course, in politics, and it seems especially when it comes to climate change, talk is cheap. Climate change or global warming, as we used to call it, has been part of our national discussion for over 20 years. But with today's political polarization and divided government, it seems harder than ever for the government to actually do anything.
That's our cover story today: With the president and Congress at odds over how to address climate change, where does that leave the American people?
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RATH: The president has made it clear that he intends to set strict limits on power plant emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency. Republicans in Congress have made it clear that they want to find a way to stop that. But NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley says the president is already moving forward with another part of his plan without help from Congress.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The president's plan is partly about reducing changes to the Earth's climate mainly by cutting back on greenhouse gases, but it's also about adapting to those changes we can't stop. And that means getting more resilient to floods or droughts or wildfires or invasive insects, all the sort of biblical plagues that come along with climate change.
And this week, his Agriculture secretary announced a creation of seven climate hubs around the country. These will be national research centers that will focus on helping farmers and ranchers and others in rural communities to cope with climate change.
RATH: Of course, we've heard Republicans are not on board with most of the president's plan, most notably his intention to impose stricter regulations on power plant emissions. So are we headed toward a political showdown on this issue?
HORSLEY: Well, it doesn't look as if Congress itself is going to tackle climate change. So one of the big tools in the president's toolbox now is the EPA. And that agency has been working on rules that would limit carbon pollution from power plants, especially coal-fired plants. They're responsible for about 40 percent of the greenhouse gases in this country. So there will be a fight over those rules, which the president wants to see finalized next year.
The EPA is acting under the Clean Air Act, so it doesn't take affirmative action by the Congress to authorize this. But the critics in Congress will try to challenge that. Perhaps more importantly, the EPA authority's being challenged in the Supreme Court, and the high court is set to hear arguments later this month.
RATH: NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.
HORSLEY: My pleasure.
RATH: One of the congressmen leading the fight against regulating power plants is Ed Whitfield, Republican representative from Kentucky. He says just because climate change is real shouldn't mean the government can hit power companies with overly strict regulations.
REPRESENTATIVE ED WHITFIELD: We have legislation that's been reported out of the Energy and Commerce Committee that basically says to EPA when you set the emission standards, you have to set a standard that has been adequately demonstrated in the marketplace.
RATH: His proposal would prevent the EPA from setting drastically lower emission standards for coal-fired power plants. He says the president's plan to limit carbon emissions is rash and will hurt the economy.
WHITFIELD: He is moving quickly to transform the way electricity can be produced in America at a time when we do not have enough renewable power to come close to meeting the requirements.
RATH: That's Congressman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky.
In Washington, the debate over what to do about climate change is split largely down party lines. But it hasn't always been that way. Senator John McCain actually campaigned on the issue in his presidential runs. Here he is in 2007.
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SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Climate change is real. The Earth is warming, and it is a result of greenhouse gas emissions.
RATH: Climate change was on the country's mind that spring because deadly storms were ripping through the Midwest.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...a tornado emergency...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...a large and dangerous tornado by the National Weather Service...
RATH: The worst tornado came on the night of May 4, 2007. It was the most intense storm of a season that itself was the worst in 50 years.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: A tornado emergency now in effect for Greensburg in Kiowa County.
MAYOR BOB DIXSON: Oh, tornado to the east. Huge tornado. Look at that.
RATH: Bob Dixson is a longtime resident of Greensburg, Kansas. He remembers that night vividly.
DIXSON: On May 4, 2007, at 9:40 at night, we lost everything, my wife and I, as did everyone in town. Our home was sucked off the top of the foundation. And there was no walls, there was no floor. We were in the basement, and it just took everything. What we had left was the clothes we had on our back. It's those little intrinsic things that you lose like family recipes, like heirlooms.
RATH: Eleven people died, and 95 percent of the town was destroyed. In the aftermath of the storm, some people said the town itself was one of the casualties. Bob Dixson didn't think so. He ran for mayor, promising to rebuild the town. Now, Dixson is a Republican, but his approach: attack climate change head-on. His plan: rebuilt Greensburg green to make it a safe, sustainable city. He won the election in a landslide.
Now halfway through his second term, Dixson has delivered. Greenburg has a new hospital and a new school built using sustainable architecture. There are wind turbines and solar panels all over town.
DIXSON: Well, right off the bat - and I'm going to be very candid with you and especially with me - whenever I hear the term green, all I could think of was the liberal left wing, new age movement that we in rural America felt was just not appropriate. But when we drilled down closer to it and looked at everything, we realize that our heritage and our ancestors was based on those sustainable green principles. Our grandparents and our parents always taught us if you take care of the land, it will take care of you.
RATH: People obviously would want to know looking at Greensburg why you've been able to have this be less of a partisan debate. Is it as simple as the fact that you've experienced that extreme weather that was so devastating?
DIXSON: Well, it banded us together. You can build the greenest community in the world. You can eliminate as much carbon emissions as you want. But if you don't have the people to inhabit that community and a vibrant economy that they can live and work and feed their families, you're not a sustainable community.
RATH: Did you feel like these policies put you at odds with national Republicans - with, say, Republicans in Congress?
DIXSON: We perceive certain things when we hear Republican or Democrat - preconceived ideas of what Republicans and Democrats think on issues - when, in fact, it should come down to what do we as citizens think about these issues, not what we're being told, but what we've investigated and how they can be implemented at the lowest level possible, which is our local level. It's about us as a society surviving and the ability to endure, and that's what true sustainability is.
RATH: Bob Dixson is the Republican mayor of Greensburg, Kansas. He's also one of the local leaders on the president's Task Force for Climate Preparedness. The U.N. panel on climate change warns storms will continue to get more severe and more frequent. Mayor Dixson is hoping Greenburg's approach can be instructive to other communities across the county as they brace for more extreme weather.