Obama's Thankfully 'Dictatorial' Approach to Climate Change

How the president helped solve one of political theory's biggest problems.

President Obama makes his way to board Marine One last month on the South Lawn of the White House. (National Journal)

In college classes, climate change is taught as a textbook example of where democracy fails. And there are a whole host of reasons to think America will fail on climate change: We've waited too long; the consequences aren't as tangible as in other areas of policy; we're bad at sacrificing in the short term to achieve in the long term.

President Obama, who on Monday rolled out landmark regulations for coal-fired power plants, has found a way around that age-old political problem posed by climate change and democracies, in part by acting a little bit more like a dictator. This is something he's been skewered for on the right, with Rush Limbaugh accusing the White House of focusing on global warming just because "it offers the president opportunities to be dictatorial."

Limbaugh is onto something, but he has it precisely backward: The decision to use executive authority is the means, not the ends. It also makes a lot of sense when it comes to global warming given Congress's failure to pass the Waxman-Markey energy bill in 2009, and, for decades before that, to pass any sort of comprehensive climate legislation whatsoever.

If climate change seems like a difficult problem to navigate nationally, internationally things get even more complicated. Esteemed British economist and academic Nicholas Stern elaborated on the dilemma in the Stern Review, a 700-page report released for the British government in 2006. No two countries face exactly the same situation in terms of impacts or the costs and benefits of action, he observed, and no country can effectively act alone. "International collective action to tackle the problem is required because climate ... is a global public good," he wrote, "and because cooperative action will greatly reduce the costs of both mitigation and adaption. The international collective response to the climate-change problem required is therefore unique, both in terms of its complexity and depth."

Daniel Esty, the Hillhouse professor of environmental law and policy at Yale, called the dictator accusation "utterly ridiculous," noting the president's actions are authorized under the Clean Air Act, as well as sanctioned by the Supreme Court.

"The approach that the president and EPA have put forward is thoughtful, modest, and represents a commonsense approach to a challenging problem," he told National Journal. The new regulations provide ample room for state-level innovation and tailoring of action plans to local circumstances, he added, but it's by no means the best approach to addressing climate change.

The best option was already taken off the table and for reasons that have little to do with the executive branch. "Given that Congress has systematically failed to address climate change for 20 years, the president and EPA need to take action within the scope of authority they have," explained Esty, who worked for years as commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. "The package they have put forward represents a good first step."

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