That’s a Mighty Nice Climate Change Plan, America

But now the question is: Will it survive 2016? 

No wonder U.S. President Obama hopped on a flight to Europe this week. On June 2, when his environmental chief rolled out a massive proposed rule that would force power plants to cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 (relative to 2005 levels), Republicans vied to lambaste the plan, which House Speaker John Boehner dismissed simply as "nuts." In Europe, Obama can expect a kinder reception. The European Union climate chief, Connie Hedegaard, hailed the proposal as the "strongest action ever taken by the U.S. government to fight climate change" -- even as she urged every country, the United States included, to do "even more."

But amid the hullabaloo, everyone is forgetting a key detail: Actions by the executive branch are only as strong as the next presidential election. The regulations, which target coal plants in particular, can always be rolled back by a new administration. Just ask Australia and British Columbia, where, at this very moment, politicians are rejiggering their predecessors' strong carbon policies. And as U.S. environmental rules go, the carbon one may be especially easy to knock down because of its late implementation schedule -- this week's proposal, from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), calls on states to have a plan for implementation in place by 2016, with actual emissions reductions not required until 2020.

"Even if the Obama administration is able to adopt stringent new rules, and such rules survive court challenge, they could be vulnerable to revision by future administrations," said Jonathan Adler, who directs Case Western Reserve University's Center for Business Law & Regulation. Rolling back the power plant measure wouldn't be a snap, because it would require time-consuming steps like a public comment period. But a future administration wanting to void it in a hurry will have a clear precedent, Adler said: The Obama administration's expanded use of executive-branch discretion. 

"If a Republican president were to build upon these precedents, that president would [have] a far-reaching authority to, in effect, waive existing regulatory requirements while building support for regulatory or legislative changes," he said. In other words, Obama's eagerness to use executive authority -- the implementation of Obamacare being a classic example -- could come back to haunt him, if a Republican takes over. And make no mistake, Republicans will run on the issue, even as environmentalists are gearing up to champion climate change action in the hopes of wooing the general public. The likes of Rand Paul and Rick Perry are probably thinking up campaign zingers even now, to rouse the electorate against higher electric power prices and federal overreach.

So the risk is that carbon policies can be politically fickle, and in the arena of global climate change regulations, there is precedent. Australia and British Columbia both adopted aggressive carbon regulations years ago, only to see a change of government, and new economic considerations, prompt a rethink. 

In Australia, Kevin Rudd of the Labor Party -- who had once described climate change as the "great moral challenge of our generation" -- was elected prime minister in 2007 and tried and failed to push cap and trade through the parliament during his administration (sound familiar?). Then, as a workaround, Rudd and his successor, Julia Gillard (also of the Labor Party), pushed through a carbon-pricing scheme, now known as a carbon tax, which took effect in 2012. The next year, Rudd was back in office -- albeit briefly -- as prime minister. By that time, Labor was under heavy political fire from the more rightward Liberal Party, which howled about how the "toxic tax" did nothing more than damage the economy and send up home electricity prices. And the party's backpedaling began. Admitting that a carbon tax was the wrong move politically, Rudd tried to engineer a switch to a cap-and-trade scheme, which would offer more flexible pricing to companies affected by a carbon tax system. 

But it was too late: Soon Rudd was out, and the Liberal Party, now in power, set out to dismantle the carbon tax. This summer, the Australian Parliament -- more conservative than in Rudd's time -- will decide the fate of the tax (a repeal is widely expected), and whether there will be a replacement scheme, called a "reverse-auction process," that many fear will be inadequate. Though this process is incredibly complicated, the elevator pitch comes down to: Companies will compete to sell emissions-abatement credits back to a government fund. The bottom line is that carbon pricing is going away. 

As the Australian example shows, it's hard to enact long-term changes "unless you've got a degree of bipartisan support at the center of this," said Tony Wood, the energy program director at Australia's Grattan Institute. So bipartisan support for a climate-change agenda can make those policies more stable, but Australia doesn't have that; nor, ominously, does the sharply divided United States. (Britain, he said, is an example of a place where bipartisan support for battling climate change is leading to more stable climate commitments.)

Meanwhile, the same fickle climate narrative has been playing out in British Columbia. In 2007, galvanized by Premier Gordon Campbell, the province introduced the first carbon tax in North America. It earned wide praise from environmentalists, not just because emissions fell in the immediate aftermath (probably due to several factors, such as a slowing economy), but also because it had relatively few loopholes and was revenue-neutral, meaning that the proceeds were passed back to the general public, diminishing the political pain. The Campbell government also pushed through an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target -- a 33 percent drop from 2007 levels by 2020. But Campbell resigned in 2011, and a new premier, Christy Clark, took over the top office. Clark is from the same party as Campbell, but her premiership has coincided with a natural gas boom -- and that, as I wrote in the International New York Times last week, is creating a clash between British Columbia's climate goals and its eagerness to develop and ship energy-intensive gas. How exactly this dilemma will play out is yet to be seen, but environmentalists are fearful that its carbon tax and climate efforts will be badly weakened by the Clark government's courting of the gas industry. 

In the United States, Democrats know all too well that environmental measures can be reversed. The classic case is the U.S. stance toward the Kyoto Protocol, the global treaty to cut carbon emissions. Bill Clinton signed Kyoto shortly before leaving office, and incoming President George Bush promptly renounced it. (Congress never ratified the treaty either, leaving it moot for the United States; nor has the treaty achieved the cutbacks it aimed for.) On a smaller scale, the Ohio legislature just rolled back renewable energy requirements put in place seven years ago, to environmentalists' dismay. (Many other states' renewable requirements have so far survived political challenges, however.) 

This week's action by the EPA will have some momentum of its own. Companies and states will be planning for how to comply, and challenges in the courts could move forward. And say that the courts don't knock it down: A new administration still could roll back the EPA's work relatively easily, by citing a different interpretation of the Clean Air Act (the legal basis for this week's rule) or even the cost of implementation, according to Jeffrey Holmstead, an attorney with Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents coal companies. In addition, he said, when the next president takes office, the measure will still be in its infancy in terms of implementation. "The compliance deadlines are going to be out in the future, so by 2017 no one can claim -- at least no one can claim legitimately -- that they've altered their business plans based on the rules," he said.

American environmentalists hope that climate action will take on the aura of inevitability, as it tackles one of the defining issues of our time. Perhaps that is how things will unfold, and the country will indeed get on board, especially as the administration emphasizes how cutting coal-plant pollution can clean the air and improve health. But in the shorter term, there is no doubt that conservatives will use the EPA action as a cudgel in the 2016 election. After all, Mitt Romney came within four points of winning in 2012, and he was rolling out commercials with lines like: "We have 250 years of coal. Why wouldn't we use it?"

Hillary Clinton, if she runs, will presumably be bound to the EPA's carbon-cutting because of her service in the Obama administration and because her husband signed Kyoto. Not until the rule makes it through the courts -- and the 2016 election -- will it really be time for environmentalists to celebrate.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images


My Name Is China, and I Have a Pollution Problem

Farmland is contaminated, tourism is down, and companies are packing up. Beijing's first step needs to be admitting that it has an environmental crisis.

Buried in this month's China headlines -- about the gas pipeline deal with Russia, the U.S. Department of Justice's indictment of Chinese military hackers, and saber rattling with Vietnam -- was this juicy morsel: Petco and PetSmart will soon stop selling dog and cat treats made in China. Big Pet does not want your puppies getting sick from contaminated jerky. Thousands of reported pet illnesses have not been definitively linked to the Chinese-made munchies, but it hardly matters: The "Made in China" label has become toxic. Over the years, tainted milk, pork, and infant formula have made people jittery.

This is emblematic of a much larger problem: China's environmental crises are starting to drive foreign companies and expats away, along with their money and talent. Pollution numbers are piling up, and they're scarier all the time. Nearly one-fifth of farmland is polluted, an official government study found in April, and so is three-fifths of China's groundwater. No wonder the tea in my cupboard isn't branded as "Grown in China" or that a Chinese food giant just bought a big stake in Israel's largest food producer, which specializes in dairy goods -- in part because Chinese consumers are looking for safer cheese products, a Shanghai analyst told the Financial Times.

For residents, the most obvious concern is the air: In smog-swamped Beijing, just 25 of 2,028 days between April 2008 and March 2014 had "good" air quality by U.S. standards, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of U.S. embassy air-monitoring data. Don't worry: China still is a great place to bring your family -- just as long as nobody eats, drinks, or breathes. I'll always remember the way a top Texas energy regulator, Barry Smitherman, recounted a 2010 trip to Beijing, which happened to include the day the U.S. Embassy infamously described the air quality as "crazy bad." "I came away from the trip concluding that I'm not really afraid of the Chinese as a competitor," he told me.

Of course, business in China has hardly ground to a stop because of environmental concerns. Quite the opposite: Depending how you measure it, China's economy could overtake the United States this year, and Beijing still expects its GDP to grow by 7.5 percent in 2014. Many international workers still want a stint in China, both for the experience and because they can often make more money than at home.

But the casualties are mounting. An obvious one is tourists, who are recalibrating whether the wonders of the Great Wall are worth clogged lungs. The number of visitors to Beijing fell by 10 percent in the first 11 months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012 (other factors like the strengthening yuan were also at work). Edward Wong, the New York Times correspondent in Beijing, has written memorably about how many Chinese and foreigners, fearful for their air, food, and water, feel as though they are "living in the Chinese equivalent of the Chernobyl or Fukushima nuclear disaster areas." After checking his own air filter the first time, Wong wrote, "the layer of dust was as thick as moss on a forest floor. It nauseated me."

It's no surprise, then, that some people are leaving -- mostly expats and wealthy or well-educated Chinese who are able to find well-paying jobs internationally. Solid numbers are hard to come by, but a recent survey by the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization found that nearly 70 percent of Chinese leaving the country cited pollution as a key factor. (Many may not be leaving permanently, and pollution is not the only factor in their calculus -- distaste of corruption, search for adventure, fear of arrest, and desire for a better education for their children are some of the other reasons why people leave China.) But permanent emigrants will invest their assets elsewhere, to the government's undoubted dismay. China's one-child policy may contribute to the rush, says Daniel Gardner, a professor of history at Smith College, since couples with only one son or daughter are especially reluctant to risk their child's health in a polluted environment. As for foreigners, a recent survey by the Beijing and Northeast China chapters of the American Chamber of Commerce found that 48 percent of respondents "cited difficulty recruiting or retaining senior executives in China due to pollution," reports Bloomberg.

Foreigners who stay may be making more money than ever because of the pollution, however. Panasonic recently started offering extra pollution pay for expatriates in China. The move will be mirrored by other major international companies, but it may not be enough. The Canadian Embassy in Beijing is having problems filling slots because of pollution concerns, for example, even though staff already receives a hardship allowance similar to those doled out in Bogota or Caracas, according to Canada's Globe and Mail. In April, the Canadian ambassador to China hinted to the paper that one day, small children could be barred from accompanying parents to China.

Beyond individuals' physical and mental health, the pollution fiasco matters because China wants to transition its cities to modern, service-oriented economies filled with software entrepreneurs, health experts, and international financiers. "Under the old plan, where China's get-rich plan was based on dirty manufacturing," environmental concerns didn't matter, says Matthew Kahn, a professor at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Now, China wants to send manufacturing inland and lure Davos and Silicon Valley types to its big coastal cities. But such people have choices, says Kahn, and Beijing's allures of cuisine and culture, universities and government, will matter far less if people are afraid for themselves and their children. Even Shanghai, thought to be cleaner than Beijing, suffered its own Airpocalypse in December, a few months after the government grandly established a Shanghai Free Trade Zone to woo the foreign financial sector.

The good news is that over the last several years China has acknowledged the severity of the problem (something its badly polluted rival India still needs to do). Chinese Premier Li Keqiang famously declared a "war on pollution" in March. Facing up is the first step toward making improvements, though if history is any guide, it's going to be a long and depressing slog -- made harder by the fact that fighting pollution means shutting down factories and limiting vehicular traffic, which dents the economy. But it's hard to put a price tag on resurrecting the "Made in China" label, and on keeping Fido healthy.