The climate rules are the president's best chance at shoring up a legacy on climate change, and he knows it. For the president, it's personal. And it's high-stakes for everyone involved.
The Whole World Is Watching
EPA's authority ends at the U.S. border, but the rules' influence won't.
Getting the rules out ahead of upcoming United Nations talks is important, said Robert Stavins, a Harvard University expert on international emissions policy. World leaders will convene in Paris in late 2015 for a make-or-break meeting that is supposed to yield a global pact on greenhouse-gas emissions.
"It will increase the credibility of the U.S. representatives in the international negotiations in Lima in 2014 and Paris in 2015, and may therefore enable the U.S. to be somewhat more influential in the talks," said Stavins, who's with Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Other nations will be watching carefully.
"The Paris Agreement will be heavily influenced by the sense of whether the U.S. is taking the issue of climate change seriously or not," said Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy program at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank. "If the administration does propose regulation that is ambitious and demonstrates leadership to decarbonize the power sector, it will certainly inspire more ambition from other countries."
The White House, for its part, clearly views the domestic rules as a diplomatic tool. Obama has repeatedly argued that a more-aggressive U.S. carbon policy is needed to create leverage in international climate talks, where the United States will attempt to win meaningful commitments from China (the world's top carbon polluter) and India to address their contributions to climate change.
He made that point briefly in a foreign policy speech Wednesday while taking a direct shot at GOP climate skeptics.
"American influence is always stronger when we lead by example," Obama said in a speech to West Point graduates. "We can't exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everybody else. We can't call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if a whole lot of our political leaders deny that it's taking place."
The Rules Will Make Their Mark in the Senate's Tightest Races
Look for the rules to play a political role in several close Senate races where vulnerable Democrats are seeking reelection in conservative states.
Republican political operatives alleging the rules will hurt the economy will seek to tether lawmakers, including Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Arkansas's Mark Pryor, to Obama's climate agenda. Both have opposed greenhouse-gas regulations in the past; look for them to try to separate their own energy platforms from the one emerging from the White House.
Climate change is never a top-tier issue in polling. But it could emerge in the political foreground like never before this year. In addition to the rules, billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer is planning to pour $100 million into Senate and governor's races to promote candidates who support emissions curbs.