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Proposed Climate Change Rules At Odds With U.S. Opponents


President Obama heads to Paris today for the international Summit on climate change. Nearly 200 countries will be represented there and many have already pledged to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases. Despite that growing international consensus, climate politics are still deeply divided here in the U.S. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Climate negotiators have been laying the groundwork for this Paris summit for months. President Obama says it's important to get buy-in from as many countries as possible.


BARACK OBAMA: Sometimes back home, critics will argue there's no point in us doing something about getting our house in order when it comes to climate change because other countries won't do anything.

HORSLEY: Obama says the momentum heading into the Paris summit undercuts that argument. Already, there are promises to significantly curb heat-trapping gases from countries responsible for 90 percent of the world's carbon pollution. The United States is leading that charge. Under Obama, the U.S. has set new rules for energy efficiency, invested in cleaner forms of electricity and most importantly had the EPA set limits on pollution from coal-fired power plants.


OBAMA: If we're going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we're going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky. As long as I'm president of the United States, America is going to hold ourselves to the same high standards to which we hold the rest of the world.

HORSLEY: But Obama is only going to be president for about one more year. His climate initiatives could be reversed by a future Republican president. And Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who represents the coal-rich state of Kentucky, has openly encouraged states to defy the EPA rule on power plants.


MITCH MCCONNELL: In Kentucky, these regulations would likely mean fewer jobs, shuttered power plants, higher electricity cost for families and businesses.

HORSLEY: The power plants rules were drafted under the decades-old Clean Air Act, which critics say was never intended to regulate greenhouse gases. The Supreme Court disagreed, but opponents have filed numerous lawsuits challenging the rules. And Jeffrey Holmstead, who represents coal and electric companies, says the rules are more vulnerable than they would have been had Obama succeeded in passing climate legislation.

JEFFREY HOLMSTEAD: No matter how much the president may want it, if it's not been authorized by Congress it won't stand up in court.

HORSLEY: Republicans in Congress are also threatening to block funding to address climate change internationally. Holmstead says that could be a stumbling block in Paris where wealthy countries will be asked to help less developed nations adjust to a low-carbon future.

HOLMSTEAD: I think there's a lot of questions about whether there's really the willingness or even the ability to provide the kind of sums that people are talking about now.

HORSLEY: Obama insists wealthy countries are already well on their way towards meeting an earlier goal to help poor countries deal with climate change. He says that's a good investment. The White House is acutely aware of the political opposition here at home. That's why any agreement in Paris will not take the shape of a treaty so it doesn't require Senate ratification. At the same time, the administration is hoping for what it calls a durable agreement to cut carbon emissions, one that would give private investors confidence to keep pushing for less polluting forms of power.


OBAMA: Our biggest and most successful businesses are going all in on clean energy and thanks in part to the investments we've made. There are already parts of America where clean power from the wind or the sun is finally cheaper than dirtier, conventional power.

HORSLEY: Even as the president huddles with other world leaders, though, surveys by the Pew Research Center suggests Americans are more divided about the urgency of dealing with climate change than most of the rest of the world. That means some of Obama's climate initiatives could expire with a shift in the political winds. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.