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Climate Change Meets Kitchen Table as Issue Gets Personal


The White House, as it prepares to announce new limits on carbon emissions, is working to transform the debate from distant threats to more immediate issues.


President Barack Obama wants to shift the conversation from polar bears and melting glaciers to droughts in Iowa and more childhood asthma across the nation.

Opponents are also making the issue personal. They're homing in on the rules' potential kitchen-table impact, raising the prospect of higher utility bills and job losses. They expect those arguments to resonate with voters as the country is still recovering from the worst recession in seven decades.

The struggle to set the terms of the climate change discussion will largely determine the durability of a key part of Obama's second-term legacy and whether the U.S. takes aggressive action to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

"The issue at some level will be a definition battle," said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, an adviser to billionaire environmental advocate Tom Steyer, who has pledged $50 million and is seeking to raise another $50 million to try to raise climate change as an electoral issue this year.


If environmental advocates succeed in casting climate change as an issue of "kids and health," Lehane said, "you'll hear two sounds: the coal companies getting hit, and the coal companies hitting the ground."

Losing Advantage

Industry groups say the threat to jobs is real. Lower energy costs are "an extraordinary advantage" that American industry has over foreign competitors, said Ross Eisenberg, a vice president at the National Association of Manufacturers.

"Manufacturers are on the verge of a comeback here," he said. "Don't mess that up."

Obama will highlight the stakes for Americans in a conference call on global warming with public health groups hosted by the American Lung Association on June 2, said a White House official who declined to be identified. That's the day when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy is scheduled to announce the new regulations. Obama will also discuss the issue in his weekly address tomorrow.

A Global Push to Save the Planet

The argument that inaction would imperil public health was one of the most effective messages in the successful campaign to defeat a 2010 California referendum that would have rolled back a state law limiting greenhouse-gas emissions, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University's Project on Climate Change Communications.

Connecting Dots

A television commercial, featuring the head of the state chapter of the American Lung Association making that case, was crucial to the campaign, he said.

"Many Americans still think of this as distant in time and space, that this is about polar bears and small island countries but not the United States or at least not my state or my community," Leiserowitz said. "As Americans begin to connect the dots on climate change and health, we expect them to become much more concerned."

At the heart of the debate is a plan being considered by the president that would cut power-plant emissions by as much as 25 percent, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The war over the new rules involves some of the nation's most deep-pocketed political players.

Americans for Prosperity, backed by the billionaire climate-regulation opponents Charles and David Koch, plans to spend at least $125 million on this year's elections, Politico reported. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers have joined a coalition prepared to fight the rules.

Economic Impact

The chamber this week presented a study estimating the climate change regulations would cost the economy $50 billion a year, though the forecast was based on a proposal by the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council because no draft of the government rules has been released. Independent analysts and environmental advocates said the estimate failed to take into account the growth in renewable energy and natural gas industries that the regulations would drive.

The National Association of Manufacturers considers the power plant rule a precedent-setting measure that would open the way to curbs on such carbon-intensive industries as cement-making, iron and steel, pulp and paper, natural gas and petroleum refining, Eisenberg said.

Deep Cuts

The draft regulations would require deep cuts in greenhouse-gas pollution from existing power plants while allowing leeway to offset smokestack emissions with changes elsewhere in the electrical system, said the people familiar with the plan. These would include improvements in the grid's efficiency or incentives for customers to use less power.

The political battle over the regulations will be "a huge multilevel chess game across three years," said Edwin Chen, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The fight will likely encompass a yearlong public comment period before the draft rules become final, attempts to roll back the regulations in Congress, challenges in court, and state-by-state battles as each adopts its own plan to comply.

The White House in news events and cabinet officials' speeches appears to have been laying the groundwork for a public campaign to bolster the climate rules, said Pete Altman, climate campaign director for the Defense Council. It goes back at least to the announcement in February of seven U.S. Department of Agriculture "climate hubs" to help farmers and rural state residents respond to global warming.

The hubs, to be in Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon and New Mexico, underscore the connection to droughts and wildfires, Altman said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, traveled to Des Moines last month to speak on "the Heartland" as "the frontier of climate change."

Local Links

McCarthy, the EPA administrator, has been traversing the country, addressing connections between local problems and climate change. On May 15 in Orlando, Florida, she spoke about the link to asthma, a condition especially prevalent among Hispanics, who comprise a quarter of the city's population. Two days after the regulations are announced, she'll be in Hampton Roads, Virginia, discussing the threat that area faces from greater coastal flooding.

The administration invited TV weather forecasters, including Al Roker of NBC's "Today" show, to the White House earlier this month to highlight a report that portrayed global warming as an immediate threat.

The report laid out evidence that global warming is making people sicker. It forecast more cases of Lyme disease and West Nile Virus as tick and mosquito populations grow, more days of seasonal allergies as pollen counts rise, and more respiratory illness and asthma as air pollution increases.

A Climate Data Initiative the White House unveiled in March allows people to map their local communities' rising risk of flooding.

"The goal is to make this part of everyone's daily life: that it's real and impacting local communities on a daily basis," said Tom Reynolds, the EPA's associate administrator for external affairs.



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