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POLITICS: PennAve

Obama goes green with executive push on climate

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Climate Change,2014 Elections,PennAve,Keystone XL,Energy and Environment,Magazine,Tom Steyer

Climate change is in the air again at the White House.

Following his worst 12-month stretch in the Oval Office, President Obama is flexing his executive muscle on green issues, hoping to motivate the Democratic base in a low-turnout election year.

From the White House on down, progressives are ready to sound alarms on climate change, framing the issue as a centerpiece of their agenda ahead of what promise to be bruising midterm elections.

Obama has outlined new fuel standards for trucks and called for a $1 billion climate fund in next year's budget. Secretary of State John Kerry launched an Asian tour devoted to the issue of climate change, calling global warming the “world's largest weapon of mass destruction.”

Democrats say that with the Northeast being blasted by the polar vortex and the West Coast enduring a historic drought, the American public will embrace a ramped-up climate agenda.

The strategy is not without risks, however, with conservatives dismissing the variable weather as nothing more than that, and calling that liberal blueprint an alarmist overreaction that will damage a slowly rebounding economy.

But it’s another green agenda that party insiders say is emboldening the administration’s environmental push: money.

California billionaire-turned-environmental activist Tom Steyer announced that he planned to spend up to $100 million on the 2014 elections, turning heads in Washington and giving Democrats a financial incentive to rake Republicans over the coals on climate change.

Steyer already spent $11 million on the election of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and has vowed to invest his massive fortune in candidates who mirror his views on issues, including banning the Keystone XL pipeline and passing new laws and regulations to limit carbon emissions.

The hedge fund titan sees his political organization, NextGen Climate Action, as the progressive alternative to the vast political network led by billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch.

And his supporters say that Democrats of all stripes — led by the White House — are taking notice.

“To be able to maximize your performance with Democrats, you have to talk about this issue,” said Christopher Lehane, a former aide to President Clinton and chief strategist for Steyer's political group.

“I wouldn't say we're at a tipping point,” Lehane said of climate-change politics, but he added that Washington “is beginning to pick up on that tectonic shift.”

But some question whether those efforts will actually hurt centrist Democrats in tough re-election campaigns at a time when their party is in danger of losing control of the Senate.

Red-state Democrats, such as Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, have bent over backwards to trumpet their support for Keystone XL and dismiss the Obama administration's green agenda as a crippling blow for jobs in their home states.

“The White House needs to be careful to frame their arguments in economic terms,” said a staffer for a Democratic senator up for re-election. “Just trading rhetoric on climate change doesn’t really help our cause.”

“Nothing would make me happier than the White House and Democrats making 2014 all about climate change,” said a senior GOP Senate aide.

“We’ll talk about jobs, they can use global warming to scare people, and we’ll take back the Senate,” the Republican official told the Washington Examiner.

And towering over the president’s climate actions is the looming decision over the Keystone XL pipeline. If there’s one fixture at Obama events nationwide, it’s the presence of anti-Keystone XL protesters demanding that the president nix the oil pipeline.

Obama’s most significant and controversial action on climate change was pushing new regulations limiting carbon emissions from power plants.

But that measure alone hardly appeased environmentalists, who called the unilateral push just an opening salvo in limiting the American carbon footprint.

A state judge added fuel to the already-raging Keystone debate when she ruled that a Nebraska law allowing construction of the pipeline was unconstitutional.

Obama insists that he is moving full steam ahead, warning of the dangers of climate change and vowing further action.

“We're already seeing severe weather patterns increase,” he said at a trade summit in Toluca, Mexico.

“That has consequences for our businesses, for our jobs, for our families, for safety and security,” Obama said. “It has the potential of displacing people in ways that we cannot currently fully anticipate, and will be extraordinarily costly.”

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Brian Hughes

White House Correspondent
The Washington Examiner