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Policy: Environment & Energy

Obama says he would like a price on carbon

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President Obama hopes to one day have a price on carbon emissions as a policy to address climate change, he said in an interview for the Showtime documentary miniseries "Years of Living Dangerously."

Referring to a 1990s cap-and-trade program used to reduce emissions that contribute to acid rain, Obama told the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, who conducted the interview, "You can't keep dumping it out in the atmosphere and making everybody else pay for it. So if there's one thing I would like to see, it'd be for us to be able to price the cost of carbon emissions."

The Obama administration for the past few years has fought off questions about whether it planned to impose a carbon tax -- officials said it wouldn't happen. The existing power plant carbon emissions rule the Environmental Protection Agency proposed last week does leave states with an option to price carbon, such as through a cap-and-trade system like one currently operating among nine Northeastern states, though it doesn't require it.

Ultimately, though, Obama's EPA settled for something more small bore than a carbon price, though it's still the most aggressive agency action ever taken on climate change. Expected to be finalized next June, it aims to reduce carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels — currently, emissions are 16 percent below that — by 2030.

The proposed rule would provide flexibility for states to meet individual targets, which would vary by state. Still, conservatives and business groups slammed the proposed rule because they said it would lead to higher electricity prices -- the EPA, for its part, said electricity rates would rise 3 percent by 2020, but then fall 9 percent leading into 2030 due to efficiency gains.

Many GOP lawmakers are skeptical of or deny the scientific consensus that humans drive greenhouse gas emissions, largely by burning fossil fuels, that produce climate change. As such, Republicans have largely blocked legislative routes on climate change following a sweeping cap-and-trade bill that passed the House but collapsed in the Senate in 2010.

Obama pulled no punches for how he felt about GOP resistance on climate change.

Asked by Friedman whether he would like to "go off like a Roman Candle" on House Republicans regarding climate change, Obama replied, "Uh, yeah. Absolutely. Look, it's frustrating when the science is in front of us. And we can argue about how. But let's not argue about what's going on. The science is compelling. The baseline fact of climate change is not something we can afford to deny."

Rather than fight with House Republicans, the EPA instead proposed the rule through the Clean Air Act. The Obama administration has said court rulings require the agency to limit emissions that endanger the public through that law. The EPA contends the older, dirtier coal-fired power plants that would come offline under the rule would reduce smog- and soot-forming pollutants 25 percent in 2030, averting up to 150,000 asthma and 2,100 heart attacks, and that extreme weather events linked to climate change would be avoided.

Still, environmental groups said the rule didn't go far enough to curb climate change. Acknowledging those calls, Obama told Friedman, "We have got to meet folks where they are," a signal to liberal allies that he would like to do more.

"I don’t always lead with the climate change issue because if you right now are worried about whether you’ve got a job or if you can pay the bills, the first thing you want to hear is how do I meet the immediate problem? One of the hardest things in politics is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away," Obama said.

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