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Obama, Who Vowed Rapid Action on Climate Change, Turns More Cautious

by John M. Broder

WASHINGTON - President Obama came to office promising swift and comprehensive action to combat global climate change, and the topic remains a surefire applause line in his speeches here and abroad.

The Arctic ice cap is thinner than ever, satellite observations revealed this week, while also indicating that the sea ice cover continues to shrink due to global warming. President Obama came to office promising swift and comprehensive action to combat global climate change, yet has taken a cautious and rather passive role on the issue. Yet the administration has taken a cautious and rather passive role on the issue, proclaiming broad goals while remaining aloof from details of climate legislation now in Congress.

The president's budget initially included roughly $650 billion in revenue over 10 years from a cap-and-trade emissions plan that he wants adopted. But the administration, while insisting that its health care initiative be protected, did not fight to keep cap-and-trade in the budget resolutions that Congress passed last week, and it wound up in neither the House's version nor the Senate's.

Overseas, American officials are telling their counterparts that they need time to gauge the American public's appetite for an ambitious carbon reduction scheme before leading any international effort.

Has the administration scaled back its global-warming goals, at least for this year, or is it engaged in sophisticated misdirection?

Maybe some of both. While addressing climate change appears to be slipping down the president's list of priorities for the year, he is holding in reserve a powerful club to regulate carbon dioxide emissions through executive authority.

That club takes the form of Environmental Protection Agency regulation of the gases blamed for the warming of the planet, an authority granted the agency by the Supreme Court's reading of the Clean Air Act. Administration officials consistently say they would much prefer that Congress write new legislation to pre-empt the E.P.A. regulatory power, but they are clearly holding it in reserve as a prod to reluctant lawmakers and recalcitrant industries and as evidence of good faith to other nations.

Industry lobbyists and members of Congress who are engaged in writing energy and global warming bills say they are well aware of the E.P.A. process bearing down on them.

"Once the Supreme Court declared carbon dioxide to be a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, E.P.A. had no choice but to act," said Representative Rick Boucher, a moderate Democrat from a coal-producing region of Virginia. "Most people would rather have Congress act. We can be more balanced; we can take into account the effects on the economy. But if we don't undertake this, E.P.A. certainly will."

Still, the agency's regulations would take months to write and years to become fully effective. Meanwhile, Congress is already starting work on energy and climate legislation, though without significant guidance from the White House, at least in public.

Carol M. Browner, the White House coordinator of energy and climate policy, issued a surprisingly bland statement last week when two top House Democrats unveiled a far-reaching plan to cap greenhouse gases and move the nation toward an economy less dependent on carbon-rich fuels like coal and oil.

Ms. Browner stopped short of endorsing that plan, issued by Representatives Henry A. Waxman of California and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, saying instead that Mr. Obama "looks forward to working with members of Congress in both chambers to pass a bill that would transition the nation to a clean-energy economy." She gave little clue as to what she and the president believe such a measure should say.

At an international climate conference in Germany that ended Wednesday, some delegates said they were disappointed in the Obama administration's lack of robust leadership. The explanation offered by Jonathan Pershing, a leader of the American delegation, was that the administration was waiting to measure the American technological and political capacity to address climate change and was looking to Congress to set specific targets for reducing carbon pollution.

Business lobbyists welcome the White House's go-slow approach, saying the issue is too complicated and too costly to be rushed, especially in a recession.

"We have not until now had a national debate on a climate change proposal, period," said Karen A. Harbert, a former senior Energy Department official who now heads the United States Chamber of Commerce's energy institute. "That has to happen for any piece of legislation to achieve broad support across the country."

Ms. Harbert and other business lobbyists also welcomed the administration's hesitancy to undertake regulation of climate-altering gases under E.P.A. authority, saying the matter should be fully aired before Congress so that all interests and regions could be heard.

Keith McCoy, vice president for energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, said his organization was "strongly opposed to an E.P.A. regulatory process for greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act."

Mr. McCoy said his members would prefer a binding international treaty that would cover all nations, particularly those whose industries compete with energy-intensive American manufacturers. "Absent that," he said, "we would prefer a robust and transparent debate within Congress."

The administration's caution leaves many environmental advocates frustrated, although most are reluctant to speak on the record for fear of alienating their allies inside government.

One environmental and energy lobbyist with close ties to the White House said the administration had been inhibited by a number of factors, including vacancies in many top policy jobs, an intense early focus on the financial and economic crises, and an unwillingness to alienate business and Congressional leaders with a heavy-handed approach.

"With those realities, coupled with the fact that the president himself realizes this is harder to do in the midst of recession, they are basically content to see what Congress will do," this lobbyist said. "Plus, Henry Waxman has put together a very serious piece of legislation, and that in my mind justifies their lack of forceful intervention. That's just where they are now."

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