Obama’s climate plan won’t save the planet, but it’s the result of a movement that will

    The fact that President Obama sees his own legacy as tied to the fate of the climate is a truly remarkable testament to the movement's success.
    Greenpeace activists formed a human net below Portland's St. Johns Bridge to stop the Shell Oil icebreaker Fennica from leaving to support drilling operations in the Arctic. (Flickr / Twelvizm)
    Greenpeace activists formed a human net below Portland’s St. Johns Bridge to stop the Shell Oil icebreaker Fennica from leaving to support drilling operations in the Arctic. (Flickr / Twelvizm)

    In Thursday’s marathon prime-time Republican debates, climate change was not at the top of the agenda. Aside from a few mentions of “the energy revolution,” a buried and affirmative reference to the Keystone XL pipeline, and some broad-strokes jabs at regulation, the GOP’s candidates for president — with the help from the Fox News moderators — stuck to more familiar conservative talking points like ISIS, Obamacare and defunding Planned Parenthood.

    For climate activists, this might have come as a surprise given how keenly Republicans focused their energies on carbon this past week. After President Obama unveiled his Clean Power Plan on Tuesday, conservative pundits and candidates worked themselves into a frenzy. Rush Limbaugh, a man not known for his subtlety, chided the administration for “destroying the planet, folks. You are worse that Al Qaeda.” One Wall Street Journal op-ed named the plan a “Climate Change Putsch,” referencing a German word that means to violently overthrow the government. Marco Rubio called it “catastrophic,” while Jeb Bush said it was “irresponsible and over-reaching.” The plan also came with renewed calls to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and is expected to face myriad legal challenges. In a phenomenon organizers and policy-wonks alike refer to as polarization, the Clean Power Plan is clearly making the right people angry.

    So what exactly is it? Taking their job to its logical extreme, news explainer site Vox distilled the 1,560-page report down to one paragraph. “The EPA will give each state an individual goal for cutting power-plant emissions. States can decide for themselves how to get there,” writes Brad Plumer. “They can switch from coal to natural gas, expand renewables, boost energy efficiency, enact carbon pricing…it’s all up to them.”

    The goal of all this is to reduce power plant emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. As Plumer explains, the EPA is embarking on an exhaustive process to calculate 47 states’ power-plant emissions and then set goals around them, exempting Washington, D.C., and Vermont, where they don’t have fossil fuel-fired power plants, along with Alaska and Hawaii, where grids — unsurprisingly — work a little differently. States will have until 2016 (or 2018, if they’re special) to submit proposals on how to meet those goals.

    Ruffling conservative feathers, the EPA holds final authority on whether or not the plans states arrive at are likely to make the designated cuts, and can send drafters back to the drawing board. David Roberts did a great job laying out the various stumbling blocks which could keep the Clean Power Plan from implementation, including lawsuits, state-level boycotts, the climate negotiations in Paris this December and the results of the 2016 election — a stumbling block of special concern given the plan’s reliance on federal oversight. But there are a few pieces of the Clean Power Plan that should catch the eye of climate organizers.

    Certainly, this should be celebrated as a serious victory for the environmental movement. It’s hard to imagine the plan would exist without the confrontational urging of green groups here in the United States and the world over. Still, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, power plant emissions account for 38 percent of the country’s carbon emissions — a sizable chunk, to be sure. But the plan holds only indirect bearing on continued fossil fuel extraction from the demand side of the equation.

    Theoretically, under the Clean Power Plan, every state could transition its power generation to renewables and away from coal, oil and natural gas, leaving those industries free to keep digging fuel sources out of the ground and polluting into the low-income communities and communities of color that are generally adjacent to sites of extraction. They can keep selling their wares to other sectors and parts of the world — so long as they aren’t being used to turn on our lights. As Michael Levi noted, the plan’s “building blocks” model means that plants don’t even necessarily need to switch over to renewables, so long as they’re promoting clean energy somewhere in the state. “If a state wants to use only solar to meet its targets, it can do that,” he explained. “If it wants to use only natural gas or nuclear, it can do that too.”

    Creating more renewable energy does not keep carbon in the ground, and certainly neither does fracking. There’s a dangerous amount of flexibility built into the carbon plan around this point, and a central trouble with it is in treating solar and wind generation as a direct means through which to bring down emissions. Another is its reliance on the market.

    Under the EPA’s charmingly-worded model of “cooperative federalism,” states take a choose-your-own-adventure style approach to meeting the EPA’s goals. One alluring options allows them to join or set up carbon markets, whereby plants can earn pollution allowances, or “credits,” by driving down emissions. These “credits” can then be traded on an open market to utilities who weren’t able to do the same, thus giving plants a financial incentive to become at least marginally more sustainable. So, if a given plant doesn’t bring down emissions at all, it can buy credits off its higher-achieving colleagues and the EPA will call it even. If states fail to comply altogether, the EPA will place them into a mandatory cap-and-trade system similar to the one proposed by the ill-fated Waxman-Markey Bill. In its market-creating function, the Daily Beast aptly dubbed an earlier version of the Clean Power Plan “Obamacare for the Air.”

    Obamacare hasn’t fixed America’s healthcare system, and the Clean Power Plan won’t fix the planet. The U.K.-based Tyndall Center, one of the world’s leading research centers on climate change, estimates that overall emissions in mostly Global North (“Annex 1”) nations need to be cut by 8 to 10 percent each year to avert a 2-degree celsius rise in temperatures and, with it, catastrophic global warming. Tyndall Center Deputy Director Kevin Anderson also points out that such a reduction is “incompatible with economic growth,” meaning that market-based quick fixes like carbon trading and clean energy subsidies won’t exactly do the trick. Intertwined with the science, too, is a broader concern about leaving the future of the planet to the whims of the market. Matt Taibbi warned about the dangers of cap-and-trade back during the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill debates of 2010, saying, “Goldman wants this bill. The plan is 1) to get in on the ground floor of paradigm-shifting legislation, 2) make sure that they’re the profit-making slice of that paradigm and 3) make sure the slice is a big slice.”

    Simply put, this is exactly the kind of government action that big banks and republicans love: the kind that helps them make money. “Instead of simply imposing a fixed government levy on carbon pollution and forcing unclean energy producers to pay for the mess they make,” Taibbi added, “cap-and-trade will allow a small tribe of greedy-as-hell Wall Street swine to turn yet another commodities market into a private tax collection scheme.”

    The comparison between cap-and-trade circa 2010 and today’s Clean Power Plan is hardly a one-to-one. That said, the takeaway for activists should be similar: Don’t let up.

    Combined with the collapse of climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, Waxman-Markey’s defeat triggered a crisis of confidence within the environmental movement. It proved that the inside game wasn’t working, and neither were individualized efforts to eat less meat or villainize bottled water. One year later, Occupy Wall Street and two weeks of sit-ins against the Keystone XL pipeline provided an answer: collective, anti-corporate action. They illuminated for many the connection between the financial crisis and the one facing the planet. From bridge-sitters stopping Shell in Portland, Oregon to college students urging their schools to divest from fossil fuels, organizers around the country have already taken this lesson to heart. The fact that Obama sees his own legacy as tied to the fate of the climate is a truly remarkable testament to their success. Now, the movement is at a stage where it needs to start defining what meaningful “climate action” really means — and if the last few years are any sign, that definition will include steering clear of Wall Street and its priorities.

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