President Obama declared his new carbon plan "the single most important step" the country can take to fight global climate change as he tried Monday to anticipate and rebut arguments from critics about harm his vision could do to American business.
Speaking in personal terms about his days at Occidental College in Los Angeles more than three decades ago, Obama recalled the smog that made it hard to breathe when he went out for a run and the people who had to stay inside on especially bad days.
"You fast-forward 30, 40 years later, and we solved those problems," he said. "At the time, the same time, the same characters who are going to be criticizing this plan were saying this is going to kill jobs.
"Despite those scaremongering tactics," he said, "you can actually run in Los Angeles without choking."
Obama said he was going "off script" on the remembrances, underscoring the personal importance he attaches to this key piece of his ambitious second-term agenda. The new regulations are designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants by 32% between 2005 and 2030, through new regulations that the Environmental Protection Agency administrator insists are "within the four corners" of the Clean Air Act.
Obama spoke in the present perfect tense, pronouncing the new regulations the most significant step "America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change."
"This is one of those rare issues, because of its magnitude, because of its scope, that if we don't get it right, we may not be able to reverse and we may not be able to adapt sufficiently," Obama said. "There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change."
But Republicans and business leaders were already vowing to fight him. They say the new rules, promoted by the White House as the Clean Power Plan, are part of a radical environmental agenda that comes at the expense of the American people. It could heap billions of dollars in added costs while shifting away from natural gas as a reliable and clean power source, said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.
"To the president, appeasing a fringe environmental movement has overtaken the more responsible path to grow our economy," said McCarthy, vowing that the House will "consider every option possible to fight it."
The plan would boost efforts already underway in California and other coastal states to increase the use of renewable power. But for mostly Republican-led parts of the country still heavily reliant on coal, the rules would force a major economic transition that many elected officials pledge to resist.
In his remarks in the East Room on Monday, Obama raised the most frequently cited arguments and aimed to shoot them down. Among them was one from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president. In a statement, he labeled Obama's new regulations the "costly power plan" because it would kill jobs and increase utility bills.
Obama tried to counter such assertions.
"There will be critics, cynics who say it cannot be done," he said in his address. "They will claim it will cost you money ... will kill jobs," and that it's a "war on coal" that will harm minority and low-income Americans by eliminating their jobs.
But climate changes "hurts those Americans the most," Obama said, citing statistics that show black and Latino children are far more likely to suffer from asthma exacerbated by poor air quality.
With his birthday coming on Tuesday, Obama said he has been reflecting on the changes he has seen over time. He recalled the fire in the polluted Cuyahoga River in 1969 and the acid rain that degraded the greenery and soil of the high-elevation forests of the eastern U.S. over decades. EPA remediation has eased both problems during his lifetime.
"We've got to know our history," he said, dismissing the old and new criticism as "simply excuses for inaction."
"They underestimate American business and American ingenuity," Obama said. "We can figure this stuff out as long as we're not lazy about it … as long as we don't take the path of least resistance."
Environmental groups cheered the finalization of the Clean Power Plan setting the first-ever limits for carbon pollution from existing power plans.
Next comes the tough part, said Kim Glas, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance.
"Now begins the critical work of developing state-based plans that can create and secure quality family-sustaining jobs, provide opportunities for disproportionately impacted communities and encourage investment and economic growth," said Glas.
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