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April 25, 2013

Panel ponders the political future of climate change

Several veterans of the environmental movement sketched a path forward for efforts to combat climate change at a talk sponsored by the Institute of Politics (IOP) Tuesday night. The panelists cited the problem of creating urgency around a distant threat as something that will continue to inhibit major congressional action on the issue, but they were hopeful for smaller scale regulatory action by the Obama administration.

The panel started by discussing the problems that confront lawmakers trying to deal with climate change, such as disruption to the economy.

“The policy solution to climate change is fundamentally transforming our energy economy, probably ultimately by pricing or regulating fossil fuels. That’s going to hurt core pieces of the US economy,” Coral Davenport, energy and environment correspondent for the National Journal, said. “It’s probably, potentially, going to raise prices on a lot of Americans.”

Two of the other panelists, Mark Templeton, the director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic and a professor at the Law School, and Carol Browner, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), both suggested localizing the issue.

Browner cited “the degree to which you turn an issue into a local issue” as an important factor in gaining support. “What people end up caring about is what’s happening in their community, what’s happening in the places they raised their children,” she said.

All the panelists agreed there was little hope for congressional action in the near future, but several expressed optimism that the EPA would step in. Browner noted that the Obama administration has already found ways to sidestep congressional gridlock.

“I think what’s really impressive about this administration is that they’ve chosen to use existing authorities,” Browner said. “They asked Congress to look at an economy-wide program. Congress basically said no, and they said, ‘Okay, fine. We’ll look at the Clean Air Act,’” the 1963 law meant to protect the public from air pollution, which the Obama administration has interpreted as giving the EPA the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

Given the deadlocked state of Congress and the urgency of the climate threat, the moderator, Michael Hawthorne, an environment reporter for the Chicago Tribune, suggested the government turn to adapting to the threat rather than preventing it.

“Are we looking at the wrong thing?” he asked. “Should we really be focusing on adaptation, and quit worrying and bickering about which industry is going to be regulated and instead try to cope with the problems that we’ll all be facing and will be expected to face more in the future years?”

Several of the panelists suggested that the debate could take a significant turn in the coming years.

“I think that once people start seeing that this is a problem that is costing taxpayers money, it’s costing me money, it’s costing my state money...I think you potentially start to see a different term of debate,” Davenport said.

The panelists were ultimately optimistic that the worst effects of climate change could be prevented.

“American innovation and ingenuity can solve these problems,” Browner said.

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