Can Obama Push Climate Policy Forward? President Obama vows to move ahead in combating climate change. What hurdles will the administration face? U.S. News and World Report reporter Kent Garber discusses cap-and-trade, other climate mitigation proposals and the challenges to getting climate policies through Congress.
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Can Obama Push Climate Policy Forward?

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Can Obama Push Climate Policy Forward?

Can Obama Push Climate Policy Forward?

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You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. You know, during his campaign, candidate Barack Obama pledged to tackle climate change, but is President Obama following through?

I mean, with everything that he has on his plate, and you talk about health and cars and taxes and the banks and everything else like that, can we expect climate-change legislation in Congress this session? And will cap-and-trade programs, dealing with carbon dioxide emissions, but included?

Well, let's do a little reality check with Kent Garber. He's an energy and environment reporter for U.S. News and World Report. Thanks for being with us today, Mr. Garber.

Mr. KENT GARBER (Reporter, U.S. News and World Report): Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Does it stand a chance? It is a snowball in hell, this legislation for this year?

Mr. GARBER: I think it does stand a chance. Of course, the economy is still everyone's top concern right now, but that doesn't necessarily mean the climate-change issue has been diminished, and in fact, what we've really seen in the past two to three weeks is a significant uptick in activity, both on the international side - the Obama administration just said its first delegation to global climate talks. These took place in Bonn, Germany. So this is a signal that the U.S. is formally back on the negotiating table.

And then on the domestic side, actually last week we had a big, much-anticipated global-warming bill, or at least a draft of a bill, come out of the House, and this was from Representative Henry Waxman and Representative Ed Markey. And so this is sort of the starting point for the congressional debate over global warming.

FLATOW: You know, let's go back a bit, to where the states have been fighting the federal government, going back to the Bush administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Two years ago, the Supreme Court ordered the EPA to determine whether carbon dioxide emissions are a threat to public health, but the EPA under President Bush did not issue a verdict on that. How has the new administration acted on that idea?

Mr. GARBER: Well, this is a point where we've seen a lot of action in the past month. Basically, what happened is that in late March, after essentially two months of very aggressive reviews and going over all of the existing analysis, the EPA under its new administrator, Lisa Jackson, came out and essentially said yes, carbon dioxide is a threat to public health and welfare.

And so they sent that finding or that proposal for a finding, which is called an endangerment finding, along to the White House, to the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

That's where it is now. They're probably going to release it in about a week or so, and then it goes back to EPA, and then essentially you'll have public comments. So it'll go through all the formal channels. This could take another year or so.

But what's important is that, you know, once the EPA does finalize this finding and say yes, CO2 is a dangerous pollutant that should be regulated, the Clean Air Act kicks in and says okay, you'll need to regulate CO2 from cars, maybe from power plants, from factories.

And so this is really putting now pressure on Congress to move quickly with legislation because Congress would much prefer to take up the issue of carbon dioxide regulation, you know, within their chambers as opposed to letting the EPA take care of it.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Talking with Kent Garber of the U.S. News and World Report. We had Jane Lubchenco on a couple of weeks ago, and discussing with her how interconnected all these regulatory agencies have to be on global warming and climate change, you know.

If she's going to try to stop the oceans from acidifying from CO2, we have to get the CO2 out of the air.

Mr. GARBER: Exactly, and one of the interesting things we've learned this week is that Carol Browner, who is the top climate-change advisor to President Obama, has been holding pretty regular meetings within the White House with a lot of the different Cabinet agency heads - so you know, the head of the EPA, the head of the Energy Department, Agriculture, really trying to get everybody on the same page to figure out what the administration's climate-change policy is going to be.

So you're exactly right. There's a huge amount of coordination that has to go on because it has such wide effects on different sectors of the economy.

FLATOW: So what do the president and the Democrats have to do now to get any of this legislation passed? And you know, I think the president, by how fast he's moving, sees that there is time ticking away here, at least the political capital, the popularity capital that he has.

Mr. GARBER: Yeah, well I think the most important point here is that with global-warming legislation, it's not just a partisan issue, but it's a regional issue, as well.

And so there are a lot - especially in the Senate - there are a lot of moderate Democrats who really would like to take action on climate change, who would support a cap-and-trade bill, but because of what's happening with the economy right now, they have concerns about what the impact is going to be on their state.

So if you look at, say West Virginia, they have two Democrat senators. If you look at Michigan, the same holds. And so what these moderates are asking for is that they want this bill to be written in such a way that it offers some sort of protection for their states, for their industries, and then if the protection is sufficient, then they might be willing to go along. But it's a very delicate issue right now, and it's going to take a lot of negotiation.

FLATOW: And so he's going to have trouble even with Democrats from coal-producing states.

Mr. GARBER: Exactly, exactly, coal-producing states, other heavy manufacturers. You know, Evan Bayh, just a whole number of Democrats are expressing concerns, and they're definitely not saying no, we don't want to support climate-change legislation.

They're just saying we have to write this bill in a way that, you know, maybe under a cap-and-trade plan, we, you know, exempt certain industries at the start, or we give them credits rather than making them buy them so it won't be quite as costly.

FLATOW: Yeah, if you could - if I could just interrupt for a moment - have you go through that for our listeners, exactly what a cap-and-trade program involves.

Mr. GARBER: Sure. That's a great point because often this issue doesn't get explained very well, and people's eyes glaze over.

Basically, the idea is that under a cap-and-trade program, you would set a national cap on emissions. So there would be, you know, a limit on the total amount of emissions the country could have, and this would steadily decrease over time.

And under this cap, big polluters, you know, your power companies, you know, cement makers, oil producers, would have to have credits, one credit for every ton of pollution that they emit.

And then these credits could be traded between companies. So say a company, you know, has its credits, but then it puts in place energy-efficiency measures, which allows it to pretty quickly reduce its emissions, and so it has extra credits, it could then sell those credits to a company that's having a harder time reducing its emissions. So that's sort of the trade part of the cap and trade.

FLATOW: Talking with Kent Garber, who is energy reporter for U.S. News and World Report. Our number 1-800-989-8255. I forgot to give out the Twitter today. If you want to tweet us, our Twitter address is @scifri. That's @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and we're happy to take your questions through Twitter and also in Second Life, on SCIENCE FRIDAY Island. We've got all the avatars there hanging out, talking and coming up with some good suggestions. 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

This is - how well has this worked in Europe, the cap-and-trade system, because they're ahead of us on all the green kinds of things.

Mr. GARBER: They are ahead of us, and I think the interesting thing with the European experience with it is that they had a trial program in place for a few years, and they made some mistakes, and as a result, now when the U.S. is sort of looking at what Europe is doing, there are a lot of people who quickly say oh, Europe tried cap and trade - it failed.

In fact, it didn't fail. They're still doing it, but they did make some errors at the start because it was a trial, and so they were trying to figure out what to do. And so one of the problems they had, for instance, was they, at the start of it, they didn't really make sure as rigorously as they could have that they knew exactly how much companies, businesses, factories were emitting. So they ended up giving out too many credits, which caused the price of emissions to really sink, which is not what you want to happen under a cap-and-trade plan.

So here in the U.S., we sort of - you know, people have been paying attention to that, and so one of the things we saw from Lisa Jackson at EPA last month is that she's proposing a rule that, starting next year, big polluters would be required to start tracking, monitoring and then reporting their emissions.

So we would have very solid, you know, as good of numbers as we can on, you know, where emissions are right now so that if we do have a cap-and-trade or some other system to try to regulate CO2, we know where we are now, so then we can figure out where to go from there, and that's really important.

FLATOW: Yeah. How much of the stimulus package has started to trickle into the green economy, you know, building green buildings, businesses, things like that?

Mr. GARBER: Well certainly the stimulus package had a lot of money - I believe the Department of Energy got close to $40 billion for a variety of programs. Some are weatherization projects, you know, to help make homes more energy efficient.

That money has started going out pretty quickly, and that's something that Steven Chu, the new energy secretary, has sort of made a priority. On the other hand, the stimulus also has a lot of money for some really big, ambitious projects.

There's $3.4 billion in there to try to do, you know, clean coal demonstration plants and other sort of, you know, ambitious, futuristic, cleaner fossil fuel pilot programs, and so those will take a little bit longer to hand out the money simply because, you know, the DOE wants to make sure that they're giving it to the right projects and that they're doing it correctly.

FLATOW: What about the industry? Is there money to create greener cars and not just to give it out to the Detroit cars - companies that are going underwater, but possibly the newer, smaller entrepreneurs who are actually making greener cars?

Mr. GARBER: I think there is money in there, both through loan programs, as well as, you know, other source of tax credits. There's also sort of programs that were started in energy bills in 2005 and 2007 that never really got a lot of money or had sort of languished for a while, and I think the stimulus package kind of picked up some of those. So there's an effort to, for instance, I think to try to help manufacturers of new types of batteries, to help, you know, promote those industries here in the U.S., to make sure that they go here, as opposed to abroad.

FLATOW: Right. The president appointed Steven Chu. I know you spoke with him as the head of the Department of Energy. Does that - and he's very much involved in nuclear energy.

Mr. GARBER: He - well, the interesting thing with the Department of Energy is that historically, you know, its main duties were nuclear weapons and environmental clean-up, cleaning up contaminated sites. And so, you know, up until very recently, we didn't think of DOE as being a major driver of clean energy or sort of green energy. Now, Obama, through the stimulus package, through his budget, is really saying that he wants DOE to take the lead on promoting scientific breakthroughs for biofuels, for solar.

And so, this is sort of where Steven Chu - who was previously the head of the large Berkeley National laboratory - comes in because he has both the background as a scientist, as well as, you know, he understands how collaboration between the public sector and the private sector works. When he was at Berkeley, he was actually responsible for starting this partnership with BP, a $500-million partnership, which is one of the largest academic public/private resource partnerships.

So he's kind of the point man when it comes to research breakthroughs and in jumpstarting funding for technology.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Aaron in Ann Arbor. Hi, Aaron.

AARON (Caller): Yes, hi. I was wondering about - there was a discussion - well, there's an interview with the presidential science adviser, and he talked about a lot of things. One of the things he mentioned was geoengineering. And I'm just wondering how serious that discussion was…


AARON: …because I feel like, with all that we're facing with climate change, if we're not talking about geoengineering, we're just going to, you know, we're really going to screw ourselves over.

FLATOW: Is that the John Holdren - interview?

AARON: I believe, yes. I believe so, yes.

FLATOW: Okay. Kent, are you familiar with that one?

Mr. GARBER: It's a good question. It's honestly something that I hadn't followed particularly closely, so I should probably take a pass on that one.

FLATOW: Okay. There was a talk with Holdren, who's the science adviser, the president's science advisor. And he went out and said, well, you know, when we run out of options, we may have to just consider geoengineering. Didn't he say that, Aaron? He said, well, I may…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: If we, you know, if you're driving off the cliff, you may want test the breaks out as much as you can. It may not stop you from going over the cliff, but you try to do whatever you can in the meantime.

Mr. GARBER: The other thing I would say that Holdren did say recently that I've been following - I think it's interesting for just the climate change debate -is in fact that the Obama administration is now showing some flexibility with the idea of how it would do a cap-and-trade plan. So, when Obama was campaigning, he says he wanted to do 100 percent option, which would mean requiring polluters to buy their credits, because that is not particularly palatable to some of these modern Democrats, as we talked about, now Holdren and the administration is saying, well, you know, we might be willing to relax that somewhat if it helps get a bill through Congress. So, I think that was an interesting comment coming from the science adviser earlier this week.

FLATOW: Do you think he is trying to, you know, soften up the playing field a bit?

Mr. GARBER: Yeah. I think that's a fair point. It's also a point that we've heard from other people in Congress, as well. Senator Jeff Bingaman, who heads the Energy Committee in the Senate, says that he told reporters last month that he really doesn't think that the Senate is going to pass a 100 percent…


Mr. GARBER: …option, which is what environmentalists and liberal Democrats would really like to see because, you know, the idea is that if you keep giving exemptions and helping, you know, special industries out and giving out favors, then you're sort of reducing or taking away the incentive for them to actually clean up their act and reduce their emissions. And so, you know, you give too many of this away and then there's no cost there, and so the whole plan kind of disintegrates.

FLATOW: We're talking with Kent Garber on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, with just a couple of more minutes left. So how do you see this play out? Do you think it will, before this Congress recesses this year, it will have a new energy bill there?

Mr. GARBER: That's a good question. It depends on a couple of things. One is just sort of the parliamentary procedure here. Because the - we saw the House come out with this bill last week, that the House is essentially taking the lead on this now, and the idea is to have it out of the House Energy Committee by Memorial Day, and then the House could potentially begin debating it this summer.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, it's probably going to take a little bit longer to get something, you know, through the Senate because, as we talked about earlier, the, you know, that there are these moderate Democrats, as well as, you know, the Republicans, who have concerns or are just opposed. So you have the congressional side going on. On the other hand, you know, we're looking at this international climate change conference in December in Copenhagen…

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. GARBER: …when, you know, all the world's countries are trying to agree upon a climate change treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. And basically, what Obama has said is that we need to have Congress really do the details and take action because if we don't - you know, say the U.S. goes into these climate change talks, agrees to something, comes back and says, hey, Congress, approve this or disapprove it, you know, it's likely that Congress might say no because you agreed to something that is too strict or isn't written the way we want it to. And this is actually what happened, you know, with the Kyoto Protocol, when the Senate ended up voting it down.

And so there's a dance here between what we have to do domestically and what we have to do on the international front if something will actually happen.

FLATOW: I see what you're talking about. Kent, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. GARBER: Oh, thanks so much.

FLATOW: Kent Garber is an energy and environment reporter for U.S. News and World Report.

We're going to take a break, and when we come back, we're going to switch gears and talk about good fat, the good fat that you have in you - the brown fat that scientists don't even know we had it at this age. It's amazing. We'll talk about why that's really good for you having that kind of fat. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

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