Echoing a theme of his second inaugural address five months earlier, on June 25, President Obama outlined a second-term climate change strategy to meet "a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted and damaged."

The President's "Climate Action Plan" is structured in three parts: mitigation efforts designed to reduce "carbon pollution" in the United States, adaptation efforts designed to minimize the impacts of climate change on U.S. communities, and international leadership to promote global mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Reflecting the likely insurmountable political headwinds that climate change legislation continues to face in Congress, the President's plan relies almost entirely on administrative actions. For example, through directives to the military and other federal agencies—collectively the country's largest property owner, largest consumer of goods and services, and largest energy user—the administration has significant opportunities to influence market demand for renewable energy and the adoption of energy efficiency measures.  

Key Elements of the President's Mitigation Strategy

The President reaffirmed the administration's goal of reducing total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. He proposes to accomplish this by imposing new emission limitations for power plants (discussed in more detail elsewhere in this newsletter), continuing to promote renewable energy with a goal of doubling renewable electricity generation by 2020, further reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector via fuel economy standards and biofuel development, and achieving greater energy efficiency in buildings and appliances with a goal of doubling "energy productivity" by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.

The President proposes to increase federal funding for "clean energy" technology by 30 percent in the FY 2014 budget to approximately $7.9 billion. Such spending would be applied to a wide range of programs and initiatives, encompassing technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use (such as carbon capture and sequestration), renewable energy technologies (such as wind power), and advanced nuclear power technologies.

Key Elements of the President's Adaptation Strategy

The President's plan seeks to address the physical impacts of climate change by directing federal agencies to identify and remove federal policy barriers to "climate resilient" investments by states, communities, and private companies; providing leadership in establishing climate resilience standards and practices; and improving the climate resilience of federal facilities and infrastructure. The administration intends to use the disaster relief funding authorized by Congress in response to Superstorm Sandy to address climate vulnerability in restored areas and to use the experience to develop more broadly applicable adaptation strategies.

Key Elements of the President's International Climate Change Strategy

On the international level, the President's plan proposes to continue and expand a range of existing bilateral and multilateral initiatives designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in major emerging economies (such as China, India, and Brazil) and to promote foreign investment in low-carbon energy technologies. The plan points to the importance of U.S. leadership in forging, by the end of 2015, a successor to United Nations' Kyoto Protocol climate change treaty.

To make fossil fuel use a less attractive global energy source, the President's plan calls for an end to U.S. financial support, both directly and indirectly through multilateral development banks, for construction of new coal-fired power plants overseas, except in very limited circumstances. The President also reaffirmed his pledge to seek a global phase-out of fossil fuel tax subsidies, which the plan values at more than $500 billion annually.

Potential Political Opposition to the President's Plan

President Obama clearly expects opposition to his plan from some members of Congress, particularly his direction to U.S. EPA to promulgate new greenhouse gas standards for power plants, and he has expressed no patience for any negotiation that does not accept the scientific premise for his plan. In the public remarks that accompanied release of his Climate Action Plan, the President likened opponents of climate change regulation to members of "the flat earth society," which was not viewed as a rhetorical olive branch.

It is unlikely, however, that Congress will be able to derail the nonlegislative elements of the plan, as long as the President is prepared to accept public reaction to the inevitable charges that climate change regulation will increase energy costs and kill jobs. While the President will have a difficult time obtaining the additional funding and fossil fuel tax changes he seeks in his 2014 budget proposal—it's unlikely that Congress will even pass a formal 2014 budget—Congress has very limited power under the Congressional Review Act to overturn agency actions, such as the forthcoming power plant standards. Although such standards can and likely will be challenged in court, the administration's previous greenhouse gas regulations have thus far survived such review.

Congress can seek to limit agency discretion via a budget bill (or, in the absence of a budget, in a Continuing Resolution to fund the government) by prohibiting an agency from using any appropriated funds to develop particular rules. Last month, the House of Representatives approved an FY 2014 Department of Defense appropriations bill that bars the DOD from using biofuels, and a House subcommittee approved an FY 2014 appropriations bill covering, among other agencies, U.S. EPA that expressly restricts EPA's ability to develop certain regulations, including the power plant standards. However, it seems unlikely that the Senate will agree to a budget with such provisions, and the history of recent budget battles does not suggest that opponents of climate change regulation have the votes to force a government shutdown over the issue.

The results of federal midterm elections in 2016 might change the balance of power in Congress. Current projections foresee a greater opportunity for Republicans to take control of the Senate than for Democrats to take control of the House of Representatives. While the latter situation might open the door for legislative action in support of President Obama's Climate Action Plan, the former situation would leave the President with his authority to veto legislation seeking to curtail that plan.