How Conservatives Will React to Obama's New Climate Regulations

President Obama is set to announce new rules for carbon emissions today, and what we'll see is a familiar pattern. The administration decides to confront one of the most profound challenges we face. It bends over backward to accommodate the concerns of its opponents, shaping the policy to achieve the goal in ways that Republicans might find palatable. Then not only are its efforts to win support from the other side fruitless, the opposition is so vituperative that it veers into self-parody.

That's what happened with the Affordable Care Act; not only was the law not "socialism" as Republicans charged, it was about as far from socialism as you could get and still achieve universal coverage. It involved getting as many people as possible into private insurance plans, where they could see private medical providers. But Republicans who had previously embraced similar market-based ideas decided that once Obama poisoned them with his support, they were were now the height of statist oppression.

Something similar happened with cap and trade, a carbon-credit system, which before 2008 was considered a conservative alternative to heavy-handed government regulation, harnessing the power of the market to reduce pollution—one that had the support of many Republicans. But once Obama began advocating cap and trade, Republicans decided it was the most vile sort of government overreach. The new regulations the administration is about to announce allow for state cap and trade systems, but the administration is carefully avoiding using the term.

The essence of the administration's plan, at least in the details that have been reported so far, is that it will set statewide targets for reduction of carbon emissions from existing power plants (which are the single largest source of such emissions), then let each state decide how it wants to meet those targets. A state could institute a cap and trade program, or it could do any number of other things. That's supposed to be just the kind of federalism conservatives love.  

We're likely to hear a number of responses from conservatives to these new regulations. Some will say climate change is a hoax, and there's no reason to worry about it. Others will say that though climate change is real, we shouldn't actually do anything about it. Others will talk about how despite the state-by-state flexibility, these regulations will be "job-killing." But the word you're likely to hear more than any other is "lawless."

Every time Barack Obama takes an executive action they don't like, Republicans describe it as "lawless." There are certainly times when Obama has tested the limits of presidential power, just like pretty much every president before him. But Republicans make this charge even if what he's doing is squarely within the president's rights. (I contend that they make this charge so often because at a fundamental level, they believe Obama's entire presidency is illegitimate, but that's a discussion for another day.)

It's true that early in his presidency, Obama tried unsuccessfully to pass climate legislation (a cap and trade bill passed the House but died in the Senate), and is now doing through regulation what he couldn't do through legislation. But there's nothing lawless about that, so long as the regulations are within his authority. In this case, Obama is not only allowed to regulate carbon emissions, he's required to do so by law. In a 2007 case called Massachusetts v. E.P.A., the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act mandated that the federal government take steps to regulate carbon emissions, and that's what the EPA will be doing.

Even if the state flexibility fails to win over Republicans, it's still a good idea. What matters is reducing emissions, and whichever way a state gets there is fine. The states will be able to learn from each other; if they accomplish the reductions in different ways, we'll discover which paths were the easiest, most effective, and least expensive, and states can adapt over time with that knowledge. But the details won't matter to the administration's opponents; because Barack Obama is proposing these regulations, they must be job-killing socialism intended to destroy America.

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