In Climate Deal With China, Obama May Set 2016 Theme

Source: By CORAL DAVENPORT, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, November 13, 2014

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s landmark agreement with China to cut greenhouse gas pollution is a bet by the president and Democrats that on the issue of climate change, American voters are far ahead of Washington’s warring factions and that the environment will be a winning cause in the 2016 presidential campaign.

A variety of polls show that a majority of American voters now believe that climate change is occurring, are worried about it, and support candidates who back policies to stop it. In particular, polls show that majorities of Hispanics, young people and unmarried women — the voters who were central to Mr. Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 — support candidates who back climate change policy.

But Republicans are betting that despite the polls, they can make the case that regulations to cut greenhouse pollution will result in the loss of jobs and hurt the economy.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the soon-to-be majority leader, was no less critical. “This unrealistic plan, that the president would dump on his successor, would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs,” he said in a statement.

Mr. McConnell’s remarks were a hint of a line of attack Republicans are certain to use on Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is expected to run for president in 2016. The architect of Mr. Obama’s climate change plan is none other than his senior counselor, John D. Podesta, who is likely to leave the White House next year to work as the chairman of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.

The climate plan that Mr. Podesta has drafted for Mr. Obama is expected to serve as a blueprint for Mrs. Clinton’s climate change policy, should she run.

Since the deal Mr. Obama made with China calls for the United States to cut its planet-warming carbon pollution by as much as 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, he has effectively placed the obligation on his successor to meet that goal.

That dynamic sets up climate change as a potentially explosive issue on the 2016 campaign trail, which may pit Mrs. Clinton against a field of Republican candidates who question and deny the science that human activity causes global warming. A number of prospective Republican presidential candidates have already attacked what they say is Mr. Obama’s “war on coal.”

Mr. Obama has muscled through his climate change agenda almost entirely with executive authority, bypassing a Congress that has repeatedly refused to enact sweeping new climate change laws. In addition to the agreement with China announced Wednesday in Beijing, Mr. Obama has used the 1970Clean Air Act to issue ambitious Environmental Protection Agency regulations intended to cut pollution from vehicle tailpipes and power-plant smokestacks.

Mr. Podesta, a political veteran who was also President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, devised the 2025 targets to ensure that they could be reached without new action from a future Congress. Abandoning them would require the next president to overturn them. From the Republican point of view, a Democratic candidate who might instead issue still more environmental regulations would be a ripe target for 2016.

As evidence, Republican strategists point to their recent wave of victories in this year’s midterm elections, when they campaigned aggressively against Mr. Obama’s E.P.A. regulations.

But Democrats are increasingly emboldened by polls showing that in national elections, candidates who push climate change policies will win support from voters.

According to a 2013 poll by Stanford University, 73 percent of Americans believe that the earth has been warming over the past 100 years, while 81 percent of Americans think global warming poses a serious problem in the United States. In addition, 81 percent think the federal government should limit the amount of greenhouse gases that American businesses can emit.

Twenty-one percent of Americans think producing electricity from coal is a good idea, while 91 percent of Americans think making electricity from sunlight is a good idea.

A 2014 poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, meanwhile, found that majorities of women, minorities and young people support candidates who strongly endorse climate action. That poll found that 65 percent of Hispanics, 53 percent of blacks and 53 percent of unmarried women support candidates who back climate change action.

It found that 44 percent of people in their 20s favor candidates who support climate change action, compared with 17 percent who oppose climate action.

“These groups were hugely important in the 2008 and 2012 elections,” said Anthony A. Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale project. “And they will be more important in 2016, because they are starting to make up a greater portion of the electorate.”

Mrs. Clinton has not laid out a specific climate change policy that she might pursue as president, but she has enthusiastically supported efforts to reduce carbon pollution — including Mr. Obama’s regulations. At a September conference on clean energy in Nevada she called climate change “the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face as a nation and a world,” and said that Mr. Obama’s E.P.A. regulations put the United States in “a strong position” in international negotiations.

Democrats also believe that Wednesday’s announcement weakens at least one crucial Republican argument against climate action. For years, Republicans have argued that the United States should not take unilateral action on climate change because it would hamstring the economy while China, the world’s largest carbon polluter, failed to act. But the agreement with China undercuts that argument.

For Republicans, the issue of climate change, like immigration and same-sex marriage, is one that potential candidates and their advisers are starting to grapple with as they try to carve a path to the presidency, while winning support from a new generation of more diverse voters.

Republicans who seek to win their presidential nomination will have to win support from their conservative base — white and older voters, who, polls show, are less likely to believe that climate change is a problem. More important, Republicans do not want to be targeted by conservative outside groups like Americans for Prosperity, the political advocacy group funded by the libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch.

Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, has said that his group intends to aggressively attack any Republican candidate in the 2016 primaries who endorses carbon regulations.

But some Republican strategists worry that the position on climate change that could help win them their party’s nomination could hurt them in a general election, particularly in a contest with a larger number of young and minority voters.