WASHINGTON – With limited time still in power, President Barack Obama is staking his final two years on climate change, pushing the issue to the front of his agenda as he seeks to leave an imprint on the world that will endure after he's gone.
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It's a strategy rooted not only in Obama's long-stated concern about global warming, but also in political reality.
Two weeks ago, Obama watched his prospects for realizing his goals on education, wages and immigration all but evaporate as voters handed his party a stinging rebuke in the midterms, putting Republicans in full control of Congress for the remainder of his presidency. But on a trip last week to Asia and Australia, Obama sought — and found — fruitful opportunities to make a lasting difference on global warming.
In China, traditionally a U.S. adversary on environmental issues, Obama set an ambitious new target for cutting future U.S. emissions as part of a landmark deal in which China will also rein in pollution. In Australia, he pledged $3 billion to help poorer nations address changing temperatures while prodding Australia's prime minister to stop questioning the science of climate change.
"We're showing there's no excuse for other nations not to come together," Obama said in Brisbane, where he also pressed the issue with leaders of the world's 20 largest economies.
The emphasis on climate isn't all by choice.
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Although Obama has long sought to rally action against climate change, White House aides say the issue has become even more attractive after the election because it's one where Obama has considerable leverage to act without Congress. Foreign policy is largely the domain of presidents, and at home, Obama has aggressively used his regulatory power to curb greenhouse gas emissions over fierce objections from Republicans and the energy industry.
"President Obama has made no secret that his climate crusade will proceed irrespective of what the American people want or what other global leaders caution," said Laura Sheehan of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents the coal industry.
Sheehan said Australia, whose prime minister rose to power promising to gut a hated carbon tax, is a "prime example" of lessons that some have learned but Obama has ignored. She warned the deal with Beijing, which allows China's emissions to keep increasing until 2030, will stall America's economy while China's continues to grow "thanks to affordable, reliable power."
Climate change advocates said the deal with China is paving the way for a successful global climate treaty that nations are aiming to finalize next year, because it ups the pressure on reluctant, developing nations like India. They argue a successful treaty is the world's best chance to avert the worst effects of global warming. Facing dim prospects for Senate ratification for a new treaty, the administration is considering strategies where the agreement could be labeled a voluntary expansion of a 1992 climate treaty, relying on joint political pressure to ensure countries comply with certain parts.
Yet on the domestic front, it's unclear how much more Obama can do alone.
Obama said his administration shaped its new goal to cut emissions at least 26 percent by 2025 based on existing legal authorities, rather than relying on future action from Congress. But Obama has already picked the low-hanging fruit: pollution limits on U.S. power plants and emissions standards for cars and trucks, to name the big ones.
Still, White House aides said Obama has enlisted his Cabinet secretaries to hunt for further steps he can take before the clock runs out on his presidency in early 2017. They pointed to increasing renewable fuels as one example. And on Monday, the White House launched a website — toolkit.climate.gov — to give state and local officials access to federal resources to combat the impact of global warming.
As Obama competed for a second term in the White House in 2012, he told his top aides he considered climate change to be a key piece of unfinished business, said Stephanie Cutter, his deputy campaign manager. If he won re-election, he told them, he would take on climate head-on.
"He sees climate policy as good economic and health policy, but also a moral obligation to future generations — including his own daughters," Cutter said.
Yet even some of Obama's existing steps could well be repealed by ascendant Republicans in Congress, who also have plans to stop the president from going any further. Republicans are finding common cause with many Democrats in trying to force Obama to approve Keystone XL, a proposed pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. And with the GOP set to take over the Senate in January, Republicans are already pursuing a concerted effort to gut his Environmental Protection Agency's rules on power plants, although Obama counselor John Podesta predicted they won't succeed.
"The president will complete action. It's a top priority of his," Podesta said Monday. "And I don't believe they can stop us from doing that."
Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP