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What Does the Election Mean for Climate Policy?

Dan Lashof

Posted November 9, 2012

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Tuesday was a good day for politicians who recognize the reality that climate change threatens the health of our families, our communities, and our country, and a bad day for ideological climate change deniers and politicians bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry. As Peter Lehner discusses in his post, the election will bring to the Senate a new class of reality-based leaders, such as Martin Heinrich in New Mexico, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Tim Kaine in Virginia, Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, and Angus King in Maine and it will return important voices of reason, such as Jon Tester in Montana and Sherrod Brown in Ohio.

Most important, it will return Barack Obama to the White House, who said in his acceptance speech at the convention in Charlotte:

…my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet, because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children's future.

And in his victory speech Wednesday morning in Chicago:

We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet. 

After years of denial and delay I, along with climate activists around the country, am anxious to seize the moment created by Tuesday’s election and the tragic aftermath of Superstorm Sandy to finally achieve a breakthrough. If we as a community of citizens concerned about climate change are to be successful we need to quickly come together around a focused agenda and plan of action.

That means we first have to face some realities ourselves. Despite some gains for realists, the House of Representatives is still controlled by climate deniers. So unless we can persuade a couple dozen House Republicans to change their tune, don’t expect the new Congress to produce any legislation that would significantly reduce carbon pollution.

The good news is that we don’t have to wait for Congress. The president has all the authority he needs to keep his promise to continue reducing carbon pollution. During his first term President Obama established ground-breaking standards that will cut the carbon pollution from cars in half. In his second term he can do the same for power plants.

America’s aging fleet of mostly coal-fired power plants emits twice as much carbon pollution as all the cars on the road. So smart standards that promote energy efficiency and encourage modernization of our electricity system can achieve twice the pollution reductions that the car standards will deliver over the next ten to fifteen years. The Supreme Court has confirmed that EPA has the authority to set these standards. Indeed, given that EPA has already determined that carbon pollution endangers public health and welfare it has the obligation to do so.

Make no mistake. Even though EPA is required to act, this won’t be easy. The fossil fuel lobby spent $500 million dollars during the last election cycle, and although they have little to show for it, they have made it clear that they won’t fade quietly into the night. The president and many of the newly elected Members of Congress have shown that they can withstand this onslaught by taking their case directly to the public. They will have to raise their voices to connect the dots between carbon pollution, climate change and extreme weather to explain why these standards are necessary. And they will have to connect the dots between carbon pollution standards, energy efficiency, and clean energy investments to explain why these standards are not only affordable, but helpful to the economic recovery. And climate activists will have to back up the president when he leads, and push him when he lags, every step of the way.

If we follow the carbon with focus and determination we can overcome those who are just following the fossil fuel money. We know where the carbon pollution is coming from. We know how to cut it. Let’s get after it!

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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