News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

More than One Way to Skin a Policy

| February 21, 2013

Top Environmental Reporter Details the Nuances of Developing Policy on Climate Change

At his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama surprised observers by discussing climate change more openly and at greater length than anticipated. He asserted that, failing bipartisan action in Congress, he would aggressively pursue executive actions "to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."

With unilateral executive actions looming, managing public perception will play a key role in maintaining political success, Washington Post national environment reporter Juliet Eilperin said recently at a seminar titled "Covering Environmental Controversies in a Political Environment" at Harvard Kennedy School. She discussed the issue in an event organized by Cristine Russell, senior fellow with the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

"After a long time, Barack Obama is making news about climate change again," Eilperin said to the audience of about fifty students and faculty members.

At his second inaugural address, "[Obama] made a moral case on climate change, discussing responsibilities to our children. It sent a strong signal that he will engage on a policy level.  You saw an individual that takes this issue very seriously."

The 2013 inaugural speech contrasted with Obama’s campaign rhetoric, in which he avoided use of the phrases climate change or global warming.  Energy was a top issue during the presidential race, but "it was framed in terms of economic development and energy independence," said Eilperin.

"He spoke about the need for renewable energy – he literally did not mention greenhouse gas emissions once," she said at the Valentine’s Day seminar.

Such is the familiar dilemma of political leaders navigating politics and opinion in order to pass important legislation and gain traction in Washington, while seasoned journalists like Eilperin navigate the tricky terrain of complicated science, environment and technology issues, as well as the more familiar territory of political rhetoric and public reaction.

Last year, the Obama Administration enacted strict new fuel efficiency standards for motor vehicles, raising the minimum fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The standards, jointly issued by the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, faced stiff challenges, Eilperin said.

"This just was not a winning political issue," she said of approaching this environmental goal. "So while [the Obama Administration] continued to pursue the policy, they simply would frame it in different terms. When you interviewed [Obama’s] top people on this policy – if they mentioned greenhouse gas emissions, it was the fourth or fifth objective they would get to. They would talk about curbing our dependence on foreign oil, saving consumers money at the pump, and while they would acknowledge [the environment] was a factor, it was not what they led with to justify the policy."

As a prominent journalist who has covered Congress as well as the environment in her nearly 15 years at The Washington Post, Eilperin is keenly aware that these challenges will be ever-present while the second-term Obama Administration begins its pursuit of climate policy changes in the highly partisan environment of the nation’s capital.

A target that is likely to see action in the near future is the establishment of new regulations for coal-fired power plants, currently the top source of carbon emissions for the United States. It is expected that all new-construction coal plants will face stringent new pollution standards by 2014, but Eilperin noted the controversial possibility that new regulations may also apply to existing facilities, some of which have been operating for 50 years or more.

"Regulating existing power plants is a necessity to meet our Copenhagen reduction goals, but is very controversial. Frankly, it will cause plants to shut down; it will cost billions in pollution controls," she said.

Eilperin predicted that environmentally minded Americans will see some movement on this issue – and others – during Obama’s final term, but there will likely not be a sea-change toward more aggressive measures, primarily due to the political challenges.

In her opinion, "Americans will see some progress on [climate] issues in the next four years. Congressional action is very unlikely, and executive action may instead take place, even by the end of this year."

Beyond domestic reductions, the loftiest goals will be to develop and ratify a comprehensive international agreement on climate change "by the end of 2015," which seems highly unlikely to most observers, or alternatively, to foster a bilateral emissions agreement with China, Eilperin said.

Watch full seminar with Juliet Eilperin:

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Facini, Andrew. “More than One Way to Skin a Policy.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 21, 2013.