Reports of the Death of the Obama Administration Are Greatly Exaggerated: The US-Chinese Climate Agreement

James Goodwin

Nov. 12, 2014

The commentary following last week’s elections has largely been a variation on either of two themes:  (1) how strong Republicans are now that they have secured majorities in both houses of Congress or (2) how correspondingly weak the Obama Administration will be for the remainder of its time in office when it comes to advancing its policy goals.  This commentary may be true insofar as it relates to new legislation.  (Even there, nothing will really change as the prospects for new legislation that the President can sign will be not much worse now than they have been in recent Congresses.)  But when it comes to enforcement of laws that already on the books, President Obama holds the undisputed upper hand, and congressional Republicans remain effectively impotent.

Last night’s agreement between the United States and China to undertake significant cuts in greenhouse gas emission by 2030 illustrates that.  Under the agreement, the United States will cut its emissions between 26 percent and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, while China will reach its peak greenhouse gas emission by 2030 or earlier.  Since the United States and China are far and away the two largest national emitters of greenhouse gases, this agreement marks a huge step in the international effort to avoid the most dangerous impacts of global climate disruption.  It also helps pave the way for the rest of the global community to undertake significant emissions reductions measures of their own as part of future international treaty negotiations.

The Obama Administration already has the legal authority to achieve the reductions agreed to.  Most of the reductions will be achieved through the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) pending set of national performance standards to limit greenhouse gas emissions from future and existing fossil-fueled power plants.  As explained in a recent CPR Issue Alert, these rules are just one of the 13 essential regulatory actions that the Obama Administration should complete during its remaining time in office.  By finalizing these regulatory actions, Obama can not only deliver significant benefits to the American public; he can also help secure his legacy on important public health, safety, and environmental issues.

Congressional Republicans are already hollering and throwing temper tantrums over the agreement.  Make no mistake:  The hollering and tantrums only betray their powerlessness.  There is nothing they can do to stop the Obama Administration from upholding its end of the bargain.  They can hold press conferences and hearings, but that would just provide the Administration a platform for making the affirmative case on why urge climate action is needed.  They can pass bills that would block rules from the EPA and other agencies that are aimed at greenhouse gas reductions, but the President can veto them -- and judging from this deal, clearly plans to -- and use the occasion to explain to the American public why congressional Republicans are on the wrong side of the climate issue.   Indeed, the harder Republicans fight against the agreement, the more extremist they will look.

The Obama Administration is to be commended for reaching this historic agreement.  Now it must begin the difficult work of achieving the emissions reductions promised.  It already has the authority it needs to achieve those reductions; now it just needs to summon the necessary urgency and political will to do so effectively and in a timely manner.  The Administration has already achieved a great deal during the last six years, but this agreement shows that its greatest achievements may yet lie ahead, provided that it actually follows through with the promises it has made.

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