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Obama To Announce Sweeping Plan To Address Climate Change


President Obama today is scheduled to announce a sweeping plan to address climate change. The president has framed the issue as a moral responsibility to leave the Earth in good shape for generations. Certainly, though, the nitty-gritty of any serious plan to address climate change is a huge challenge, because it means gradually moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy supplies. That will involve economic winners and losers.

Joining us to talk about the plan's specifics is NPR's Richard Harris. Good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with the winners and losers.

HARRIS: OK. Well, winners include the companies that produce wind, solar and geothermal energy. Those are sources of energy that don't emit much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and their energy will be more in demand. Plus, they will have greater access to public lands to build their windmills and solar plants, and so on. Another winner is actually public health because the plan would put pressure to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants. And remember, they not only produce carbon dioxide but they also produce mercury, radioactive particles and compounds that can trigger asthma. So losers would eventually be the coal mining companies and utilities that burn a lot of coal.

MONTAGNE: What kind of timeframe is the president talking about here?

HARRIS: Well, the president is kind of sidestepping that question. He's called on the EPA to work with the states and industries to come up with a new standard which would limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. That kind of limit has never been on the books before so that would be a major step. But it's not at all clear what that would end up being, whether it would be a really demanding limit or one that actually goes easy on the coal industry and coal-fired power plants.

This is going to be a very difficult negotiation because a very aggressive plan could actually drive up energy prices sharply and, of course, that wouldn't be popular. But if existing power plants, on the other hand, are allowed to keep running until they've reached the end of their useful lives, that could be many decades from now so that wouldn't have much of an effect on emissions.

So what the president's plan does is it calls on the Environmental Protection Agency to come up with a proposal one year from now and to have that final plan in place two years from now. So we'll have to wait a bit to see really how this is going to pan out.

MONTAGNE: And does the president have a goal in mind for how quickly he wants the nation to reduce emissions overall?

HARRIS: Yes. The White House says he is still trying to keep to a goal that he actually set in the international climate talks in Copenhagen back in 2009, and that goal was to reduce U.S. emissions by 17 percent compared to what they were in the year 2005 by the year 2020. And we're currently not on track to reach that goal with the existing program. So the idea of this new climate policy is to put enough other measures in place to make it possible to hit that mark.

MONTAGNE: And Richard, what do you know about other things that are in the plan that the president's going to announce today?

HARRIS: Well, in addition to the carbon dioxide reductions, he's also going to focus on other gases. For example, he wants to reduce emissions of methane, which also contributes to global warming, and he also is going to focus on synthetic gases called HFCs, which are used in air conditioners and refrigerators. And these gases are extremely potent greenhouse gases, and so reining them in is also a very important thing for looking down the road on moderating climate change.

The plan also calls for renewed efforts to get global action on climate change. After all, the U.S. could, you know, we could just stop emitting gases entirely and the world would still warm up because of emissions from China and the rest of the world. So the reality is that some degree of climate change is already inevitable and the plan calls for actions that would help us prepare for that.

MONTAGNE: Well, give us another example or two.

HARRIS: Yeah, well, so there are some things that they're talking about having the Department of Transportation make sure that roadways are built high enough to sustain ever bigger floods and storm surges. There are also provisions to help farmers cope with droughts and also to provide assistance to local governments so they can plan for more extreme weather conditions.

MONTAGNE: And finally, what kind of reaction might we expect to this announcement of this huge and very ambitious plan?

HARRIS: Yeah, well, this would clearly never get through a vote on Capitol Hill because many Republicans reject the scientific judgment of the National Academy of Sciences and others that climate change is a real concern. But these measures actually don't require congressional action. They are all things the administration can do without the need for any more laws.

There will no doubt be a big fight from the coal industry over these standards, and, of course, the renewable energy people are going to be quite happy about this as it unfolds. I think what we've seen is environmental groups have been pressuring the administration to come up with a climate policy ever since the president took office, and this is certainly a step in the right direction.

Though, of course, how strong it is, depends upon the negotiations over the power plant regulations that are still to come.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Richard Harris, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.