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From Paris, a Big Kiss to Nixon and (Anthony) Kennedy


By Eban Goodstein

In the three years leading to the ongoing Paris climate negotiations, the world has witnessed a truly big pivot. Back in 2012, business-as-usual global warming pollution was set to heat the world up 8 degrees Fahrenheit by century’s end. Neither of the two biggest polluters, the U.S. or China, had put serious policies in place to address the crisis. But now, if the commitments being made here in Paris are carried through, that 8-degree number will be cut to 6 degrees Fahrenheit.

What changed?

First, the U.S. came to the table. President Barack Obama issued EPA-mandated cuts from two big sectors, vehicles in 2012 and electric power in August of this year. With the U.S. commitments made, China’s leaders stepped up, motivated by a rising middle class demanding an end to the worst urban air pollution in the world. China pledged to cap coal use by 2020, and cap global warming pollution starting in 2030.

In China, domestic politics focused on cleaning up the air drove the big pivot. In the U.S., by contrast, increasingly fierce partisan division over action on climate change has produced nothing but legislative gridlock on climate. Blocked in Congress, Obama had to turn to a 45-year-old law, the Clean Air Act (CAA), as a basis for action.

Progress in Paris can thus be traced back to Republican President Richard Nixon. In 1970, Nixon signed the CAA, and also the legislation creating the EPA. The original CAA had nothing to do with global warming. Back then, no one besides a few scientists had even heard of it. Instead, like in China today, the focus was on urban smog and toxic air pollution. The CAA gave the newly created EPA the authority and the responsibility to ensure that industry was not putting dangerous materials into the air. The EPA went to work, and over the next two decades, air quality in U.S. cities improved dramatically.

Fast forward to 2007. Climate change had been a global issue for two decades, and yet the U.S. had passed no laws to regulate global warming pollution. Frustrated by the U.S. failure to lead on climate, the Attorney General of Massachusetts, joined by other states, sued the EPA. The suit argued that carbon dioxide and other global warming gasses were “dangerous pollutants," and therefore, under the 1970 CAA, the EPA was obligated to start regulating global warming emissions. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in a 5-4 decision, the Court agreed: Global warming gasses were indeed dangerous pollutants, and the EPA was ordered to regulate. As in many recent cases, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, was the swing vote.

This decision, leveled against the Bush EPA, led eventually to the 2012 Obama EPA regulation requiring a doubling of the fuel efficiency of U.S. cars, to 55 miles per gallon by 2025. And in 2015, the EPA finalized regulations requiring the electric power sector to reduce emissions by 32 percent below 2005 level by 2030. Together, these two U.S. commitments brought China to the table, and have led in turn to the international agreement now being ratified in Paris that can shave 2 degrees off of the planetary warming our grandkids will experience.

A big kiss then goes out from Paris to President Nixon and Judge Kennedy. These Republican politicians represent a historic, deep bipartisan American tradition supporting environmental protection and resource conservation. Lost as we have become in the bitter partisanship of the Tea-Party era, it is hard to imagine that, as recently as 2008, both major contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, John McCain and Mitt Romney, at one point expressed support for climate regulation. Pragmatic bipartisan cooperation on environmental protection was a proud hallmark of U.S. politics throughout the 20th century.

In the face of the civilizational challenge of a destabilized climate, can we recapture this tradition of American support across party lines for stewardship of the earth? To sustain momentum, we have to. In the short term, Obama’s Paris pledge can be undone as early as November 2016, depending on the outcome of U.S. elections. Congress could exempt global warming pollution from the Clean Air Act, or a president opposed to climate action could slow-walk implementation of the EPA global warming regulations. If the U.S. backs down from Paris, so too will China, India and the rest of the world.

Over the medium term, we need to get 6 degrees Fahrenheit down to 4 degrees. The Clean Air Act, while a good start, cannot provide deep enough cuts from the U.S. to get us there. Post 2020, clean energy votes from both parties, in both houses of Congress, will be needed to avert the catastrophic consequences of a planet headed to 6 degrees Fahrenheit and beyond.

Why 2020? And how do we get from a deeply partisan here to a bipartisan there? More on that in my next post.

Image credit: Flickr/Bernd Schüttke

Eban Goodstein is an economist and is Director of the MBA in Sustainability and the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

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