Obama’s Clean Air Act

An Interview with David Goldfield

The Ger­man dai­ly news­pa­per, Der Tagesspiegel, recent­ly fea­tured an arti­cle on Pres­i­dent Obama’s pol­i­cy for lim­it­ing green­house gas emis­sions. Pres­i­dent Obama’s envi­ron­men­tal stance was a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to his elec­tion and re-elec­tion cam­paigns. Nonethe­less, he has faced dif­fi­cul­ties in imple­ment­ing his reforms. We inter­viewed David Gold­field, Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na at Char­lotte, to dis­cuss the President’s plans.

American Studies Blog: Dr. Goldfield, Der Tagesspiegel, a Berlin-based leading German daily, reported on President Obama’s new environmental initiative. Could you tell us what is new about President Obama’s plan?
Professor David Goldfield
Pro­fes­sor David Goldfield

Dr. Gold­field: In 2009, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives passed a cli­mate change bill that includ­ed some of the pro­vi­sions that Oba­ma is unveil­ing with respect to emis­sions from coal-fired plants. How­ev­er, the leg­is­la­tion died in the U.S. Sen­ate in 2010. The Clean Air Act of 1970 enables the Pres­i­dent to issue an Exec­u­tive Order, which bypass­es Con­gress. Oba­ma has pledged to cut the green­house gas pol­lu­tion by 17% from 2005 lev­els before 2020. Since 40% of the nation’s elec­tri­cal ener­gy is gen­er­at­ed by coal-fired plants, it has a sig­nif­i­cant impact on those plants. What is cre­ative about Oba­ma’s pro­pos­al is that it allows the states a num­ber of pol­i­cy options oth­er than sim­ply shut­ting down coal plants to reduce emis­sions. These options would include installing new wind and solar pow­er as well as “cap and trade” poli­cies (the essence of the failed 2010 leg­is­la­tion), where states would agree to cap car­bon emis­sions and also buy and sell per­mits to pol­lute, thus mak­ing it increas­ing­ly expen­sive (and ulti­mate­ly unprof­itable) to pollute.

ASB: Why does this initiative come so late in the second term of the Obama administration?

Gold­field: This is in part about lega­cy. How are we going to remem­ber the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion? It is also about reclaim­ing our glob­al lead­er­ship on cli­mate change. How can we ask Chi­na and India to lim­it their car­bon emis­sions when we don’t? There will be a cli­mate change sum­mit in NYC in Sep­tem­ber, and Oba­ma is look­ing to that as well to assert Amer­i­can lead­er­ship on the issue. Ide­al­ly, Oba­ma’s pro­pos­al would have been trans­lat­ed into leg­is­la­tion. Going the route of an Exec­u­tive Order is a last resort. It will like­ly gen­er­ate law­suits, bit­ter polit­i­cal debate, and charges from Repub­li­cans that this plan will derail a shaky eco­nom­ic recov­ery. But if imple­ment­ed, this Exec­u­tive Order will like­ly cue cap­i­tal to fund lots of alter­na­tive ener­gy projects.

ASB: Der Tagesspiegel points out that President Obama is working through the Environmental Protection Agency because there is no majority in Congress for him to pass major environmental legislation. How does this work within the U.S. political system, and how effective can this be?

Gold­field: Exec­u­tive Orders have the force of law. But they require a peri­od of pub­lic com­ment and, giv­en the polar­ized polit­i­cal cli­mate of the U.S., it’s cer­tain the debate will be bitter.

ASB: How is the American press reacting to this new plan?

Gold­field: This is big news in the Amer­i­can press. The Wall Street Jour­nal was the first major pub­li­ca­tion (in its Sun­day online edi­tion) to break the sto­ry. Since then, it has been the lead sto­ry in The New York Times. The impli­ca­tions of the ini­tia­tive are sig­nif­i­cant, though its impact on glob­al warm­ing may be slight if there isn’t some glob­al agree­ment on emis­sions. At the very least, it will com­mit the U.S. to a path of wean­ing the coun­try away from its depen­dence on coal. The tar­get set by Oba­ma is reach­able, espe­cial­ly since we have increas­ing­ly used nat­ur­al gas finds to low­er emis­sions since 2005.

One final note: I’m bet­ting that Oba­ma will approve the Key­stone Pipeline.

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David Gold­field is the Robert Lee Bai­ley Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at UNC Char­lotte and has writ­ten six­teen books on the his­to­ry of the Amer­i­can South, most recent­ly Amer­i­ca Aflame: How the Civ­il War Cre­at­ed a Nation (2011). Two of his books have been nom­i­nat­ed for the Pulitzer Prize in his­to­ry. He also serves as a con­sul­tant to muse­ums, the news media, and the U.S. Depart­ment of State on the social and polit­i­cal his­to­ry of the South.