In a bold move that could burnish his environmental legacy and set the entire planet on a path to reducing global warming, President Obama is expected today to take executive action that aims to cut carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants by 30 percent by 2030.
The executive act is sure to generate a firestorm of criticism and attack from Republicans and the coal industry, but it could potentially close hundreds of the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants and, according to the New York Times, lead to systemic changes in how power is generated and used in the U.S.
The president also took a bold move on the foreign policy front, authorizing the swap with the Taliban of a captured U.S. soldier in exchange for five Taliban leaders being held at Guantanamo Bay. The prisoner swap invoked the ire of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was kept in the dark about the negotiations, and second- guessing from the president’s Republican critics.
The new carbon rules being authorized by Obama under the 1970 Clean Air Act will offer states an extensive menu of options to employ in achieving the pollution cuts, such as installing new wind and solar energy technology. States could opt to go in that direction rather than immediately shutting down coal plants, according to the New York Times. Other options include starting or joining state and regional “cap and trade” programs, which allow states to buy and sell permits to pollute, forcing companies to pay a premium for the right to violate the rules.
Though officials from the Environmental Protection Agency hope the flexibility will result in greater compliance, they are sure to face major legal challenges from industry groups, who say the flexibility actually makes the rule more legally vulnerable.
Like with the healthcare law, the president clearly has his eye on the big picture and longterm change, rather than immediate political calculation. Though the public believes in climate change, Republicans will surely try to use Obama’s executive action against Democrats in November’s midterm elections.
The latest Pew Research Center poll revealed that 67 percent of Americans say there is “solid evidence that the Earth is warming.” A CBS News poll in May found that only 11 percent said global warming did not exist.
With the new rules, the U.S. would actually have a chance to meet the ambitious target Obama announced in 2009, when he pledged that the nation would cut its greenhouse gas pollution 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by 2050.
“This momentous announcement raises the bar for controlling carbon emissions in the United States,” Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, a Washington research organization, told the New York Times, adding, “These new standards send a powerful message around the world.”
But attorney Scott Segal, whose firm Bracewell & Giuliani represents coal companies, already has plans to sue the administration.
“Clearly, it is designed to materially damage the ability of conventional energy sources to provide reliable and affordable power, which in turn can inflict serious damage on everything from household budgets to industrial jobs,” he told the Times in an email.
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the president’s rules could lower the nation’s gross domestic product by $50 billion annually.
Obama wants the rules to go into effect by June 2015, before he leaves office, but the draft of the plan will now be open to public comment—which means months of intense lobbying from states, industry groups and environmentalists in Washington.
Though the rules by themselves won’t necessarily lower global warming, environmental experts say they might lead other nations such as China—which passed the U.S. as the globe’s biggest polluter—and India to start lowering their emissions. In the past those nations tended to ignore warnings from the U.S., saying Americans weren’t even taking the steps they were trying to get other nations to take. Obama’s move now will remove that claim from their arsenal, which in the long run could make an enormous difference in the planet’s ability to fight global warming.
“I fully expect action by the United States to spur others in taking concrete action,” Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, told the Times.
As for the prisoner swap, the five prisoners from Guantanamo have already been flown to Qatar on Sunday as part of a secret agreement to release Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive for five years and yesterday was on his way to Germany from Afghanistan. Bergdahl was the only known U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan.
According to Reuters, Karzai is incensed about the exchange.
“The president is now even more distrustful of U.S. intentions in the country,” a source at President Hamid Karzai’s palace in Kabul told Reuters. “He is asking: ‘How come the prisoner exchange worked out so well, when the Afghan peace process failed to make any significant progress?'”
But an answer came from the Taliban, which has fought against the Afghans and the U.S. for more than a decade.
“It won’t help the peace process in any way, because we don’t believe in the peace process,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Sunday.
According to a statement from Karzai’s press office, the U.S. deal to transfer the five Taliban militants from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar violated international law.
“No government can transfer citizens of a country to a third country as prisoners,” said the statement.
The five Taliban leaders had been in Guantanamo Bay since it opened in 2002. The terms of the deal dictate that they stay in Qatar for a year, clearly with the intent of keeping them out of the fight. But Afghan officials believe the men would return to the battlefield and bolster the insurgency just as most foreign combat troops were exiting by the end of this year.
According to leaked U.S. military cables, Reuters said at least two of the men are suspected of committing war-crimes, including the murder of thousands of Afghan Shi’ites.
In the U.S., Republican politicians who normally would cheer the release of an American prisoner are accusing Obama of negotiating with terrorists—even as Bergdahl’s release was celebrated by his family and his hometown of Hailey, Idaho.
“These are the highest high-risk people. Others that we have released have gone back into the fight,” said Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war and Vietnam War veteran.
“That’s been documented. So it’s disturbing to me that the Taliban are the ones that named the people to be released,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
After receiving medical care at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Bergdahl will be transferred at some point to a facility in San Antonio.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, rejecting the accusation that the U.S. was negotiating with terrorists, said the swap had been worked out by the government of Qatar.