Obama Administration Reaches Out to Local Governments to Spread Its Climate Message

Coral Davenport
National Journal

President Obama used his Inaugural Address and State of the Union speech to issue the boldest, clearest call to action on climate change ever voiced by a sitting U.S. president—but don’t expect him to barnstorm across the country with that message.

While the president will headline a road show of events to sell his crowd-friendly message on restoring the middle class and boosting U.S. manufacturing, climate change won’t get a starring role. It remains a politically inflammatory subject, and the White House communications team isn’t exactly eager to remind Americans how Obama plans to tackle the problem. The president has called on Congress to pass a climate-change bill, but it’s almost certain that any such legislation will expire in the gridlock of Capitol Hill. Instead, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue tough regulations on coal-fired power plants, the nation’s biggest source of global-warming pollution. That’s hardly the stuff of soaring rhetoric—and it’s sure to reignite Republicans’ 2012 campaign attacks that the president is abusing government authority and waging a war on coal.

But even though climate change won’t get top billing in Obama’s speeches, the White House is far from ignoring the issue; it’s just doing a different kind of outreach to build the case for its coming climate-change actions.

Inside Washington, in a warren of back rooms at EPA, dozens of environmental officials are working to craft landmark climate-change regulations that they hope will curb industrial pollution—and withstand a tsunami of legal and political attacks. To help them do it, they’re inviting in heads of the industries and businesses that will soon be forced to implement the rules. Business leaders, although they’re not happy about the coming regulations, are jumping on the opportunity to communicate their concerns and perhaps help shape the rules they’ll have to live by. And the Obama administration hopes that the dialogue will help defuse some of the opposition to come.

Outside Washington, the administration is building support a different way. The Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Agriculture departments are ramping up their outreach to state and local governments to help them prepare for the impacts of climate change, including increased flooding and more extreme storms and droughts. The local work by federal agencies doesn’t draw the headlines like a presidential speech. But it does further a grassroots communications strategy—by getting the conversation about preparing for climate change into town councils and city planning boards, where there’s less partisan fighting and more focus on practical challenges such as creating new flood zones and building storm-resistant infrastructure.

“This seems to me [to be] the beginning of a big-tent, grassroots climate strategy, which no administration has attempted in the U.S. before,” said Paul Bledsoe, an environmental-policy consultant who was a senior climate-change and communications adviser to the Clinton White House. “Climate strategies in the past have been declared from on high. That hasn’t been terrifically effective in mobilizing political support. But involving people in their communities, with state and local officials, who are concerned about impacts in terms of infrastructure and emergency services, could be more effective.”

EPA is preparing to issue a regulation to cut carbon pollution from future power plants later this spring—a rule that will effectively freeze construction of coal plants. After that, although it’s not clear when, the agency is expected to issue even more-aggressive regulations requiring existing coal plants to reduce their pollution. Gina McCarthy, EPA’s top clean-air and climate-change official, whom Obama is expected to nominate to head the environmental agency as soon as this week, has been working closely with coal and electric-utility officials to craft the regulations. The administration doesn’t expect the industry to welcome the rules—but it hopes the outreach will create some goodwill and at least lessen some of the inevitable push-back.

“Conversations have started,” said Chuck Barlow, vice president of environmental strategy for Entergy, an electric utility with power plants in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. “There have been small groups from industry who’ve gone in and had discussions with [McCarthy]. We’re talking about, if EPA does this, what will it look like? How flexible is it? Does EPA do most of the work, or the states? There will be much more to come.”

“We’re seeing more and more interest and activity from the federal agencies,” said Brian Holland, director of climate programs for ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA, an organization that works with municipal governments. “It started before superstorm Sandy and has really intensified since that disaster. We see a clear indication that climate-change resilience is at the top of the president’s agenda and that federal agencies are becoming more active in that area.”

Even the State Department has reached out. Two days after Secretary of State John Kerry was confirmed in his post, his undersecretary, Robert Hormats, phoned Holland’s group to ask how the foreign-policy department could help local governments in the U.S. prepare for climate change—a sign of Kerry’s particular passion on the issue.

Among the climate-planning tools the federal government is offering to share is a digital “sea-level rise” planner created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Officials in coastal cities can plug their coordinates into the mapping software to determine how rising sea levels could harm their region. They can then use that mapping data to site future roads and structures away from harm.

“It changes the debate from whether climate change is happening to how we can best protect ourselves by creating more resilient communities,” Holland said.

Mayor Frank Cownie of Des Moines, Iowa, agrees. In 2010, his city was hit with three devastating floods as heavy downpours caused the Des Moines River to overrun its banks. Last summer, record drought destroyed the region’s corn crop. The weather keeps getting worse, climate science shows it’s going to keep happening, and Cownie says his city officials want to plan for it—with the welcome help of Washington.

“Ten years ago, eight years ago, six years ago, people were a little slow to talk about this, but now we’re saying, ‘Yeah, there’s a problem,’ ” he said.

“We have to figure out, how do we protect against extreme events in terms of flooding, and how do we capture water to use when there’s another drought? There’s been an upswing of outreach by the federal government on resiliency, and we’re having the conversation at the city, state, county, and suburb level to figure out what we’re going to do.”

Meanwhile, as climate-policy conversations are taking place in EPA’s offices and Iowa’s town halls, advocates in Congress are also keeping up the drumbeat. In the Senate, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Bernie Saunders, I-Vt., have introduced, with much fanfare, a sweeping climate-change bill. And Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., has joined forces with Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to create a bicameral Safe Climate Caucus that will keep the issue alive with a stream of hearings and floor speeches in both chambers. But it’s almost certain that Boxer’s bill—which she has said she hopes to bring to the floor by this summer—will die in the Senate and be dead on arrival in the Republican House.

But that rejection could actually help the White House. In his State of the Union, Obama declared that if Congress won’t act on climate change, he will. The failure of a high-profile bill would create the opportunity for the administration to roll out its new regulations.