Climate policy remains a tough political sell

A pair of fundraisers just 90 minutes apart in the San Francisco Bay Area last week laid bare the competing forces of politics and policy that President Barack Obama is grappling with as he prepares to unveil a slate of major initiatives on global warming in late June or in July.

In public comments at the beginning of the first session, Obama made clear that he considered climate change “one of the most important decisions we make as a nation,” according to a transcript released by the White House.

But during the second event, according to several people familiar with his private remarks at the home of clean-tech entrepreneur Vinod Khosla, Obama expressed concerns about the political pain involved, saying that “dial testing” of his State of the Union speech showed that the favorability ratings “plummeted” when he vowed to act on climate change if Congress refused to do so.

The two comments highlight the White House’s quandary as it prepares to take more aggressive steps on the environment. Activists and some of Obama’s most loyal supporters are demanding strong efforts to curb greenhouse gas buildup before it’s too late to prevent catastrophic drought, sea-level rise and ocean acidification. But the public remains more concerned with the economy, and Obama is committed to developing North American energy supplies, which may mean disappointing his most ardent backers on a signature environmental issue: whether to permit construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

As his second term takes shape, the president has fallen back from the broad clean-energy agenda he envisioned when he first took office and now faces tough political choices on how to achieve some of what remains a top administration priority.

The White House has asked the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department and the Energy Department to draft plans on how to curb greenhouse gas emissions while also helping the country adapt to the impacts of global warming, according to several people briefed on the matter. These individuals said Obama is likely to strongly consider proposals ranging from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants to making coastal communities more resistant to increasingly severe storms and flooding.

“This is the issue of our time,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who met with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., last week to discuss climate change. “People can plainly see that something is wrong, and polls show a strong majority wanting action. By announcing and implementing strong regulatory steps, President Obama can revive this great issue and break through the barricade of special interests that now blocks action in Congress.”

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which launched ads this week in which Robert Redford called on Obama to live up to the “courage of his convictions,” said the president needs to outline exactly how he plans to combat global warming by 2016. “We’re going to ratchet up the noise, at least on this, because we’re running out of time,” she said, noting that power plants account for 40 percent of the nation’s carbon output.

A White House official said Obama has made it clear that he considers climate change a priority and is less politically constrained now that he no longer faces re-election.

The administration has yet to decide whether to block the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport heavy crude from Alberta’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Environmentalists contend the pipeline will speed the extraction of a particularly dirty form of crude and contribute to warming of the atmosphere. Backers argue it will generate jobs and boost the nation’s oil supply.

“On climate, we’re worse off than we were when the president’s second term started,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.

In conversations with donors and lawmakers over the past few months, Obama has repeatedly emphasized that he needs more time to lay the groundwork with the American public before unveiling a formal climate strategy.

In a discussion this spring with one senator, who asked not to be identified, the president said he “was with the senator on climate but that the time wasn’t right.”

During an April visit to the San Francisco home of billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer, who created a political action committee in March to target lawmakers supporting the Keystone pipeline, Obama noted that the issue of climate change “is near and dear” to Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor.

“But — and I mentioned this to Tom and Kat and a few folks right before I came out here — the politics of this are tough,” Obama said. “Because if you haven’t seen a raise in a decade; if your house is still $25,000, $30,000 underwater … you may be concerned about the temperature of the planet, but it’s probably not rising to your number one concern. And if people think, well, that’s shortsighted, that’s what happens when you’re struggling to get by.”

Oil and coal industry officials argue that the country cannot afford new federal limits on carbon. “We think the recovery right now is quite nascent, and there is an opportunity that the administration has when it comes to creating jobs,” said Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute.

Obama and his top aides also have expressed concerns about acting under executive authority that could be overturned by a subsequent administration, and about antagonizing Congress before the Senate votes on confirming Gina McCarthy as EPA administrator.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a staunch opponent of the Keystone pipeline, flew aboard Air Force One with Obama in March. She said the president made the point that one shouldn’t always back a policy because it’s popular, noting that the majority of Americans support TransCanada’s proposed project, but wouldn’t say what he would do about the pipeline.

“I encouraged him to follow through on the correct policy position, suggesting polling numbers aren’t always in support of smart policy,” she said.

Organizing for Action, the nonprofit group formed to advance the president’s second-term agenda, has steered clear of Keystone and focused its efforts on changing Americans’ overall attitude toward global warming. Jon Carson, OFA’s executive director, has compared this approach to the battle over same-sex marriage, in which it has become less socially acceptable to oppose gay couples.

But several environmental and social change groups – including 350.org, CREDO Action and the Sierra Club – have expressed frustration with this approach, arguing they need a more immediate remedy. The fact that Obama continues to support exploring for natural gas and shipping it overseas, they argue, contradicts his commitment to fight climate change.

Ivan Frishberg, campaign climate manager for OFA, said the group was “gearing up to be ready for aggressive action by the federal government” and has started planning for a slew of events during the August congressional recess.

At a Capitol Hill energy and environment conference Tuesday, Obama’s deputy assistant for energy and climate change, Heather Zichal, said the administration’s agreement with China to address the potent greenhouse gases in air conditioners and refrigerators was the first in a line of upcoming climate announcements from the White House. “We’re ripe for a few more deliverables,” Zichal said.

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