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Front-lines communities led the People's Climate March on September 21, 2014 in New York City. (Photo: Climate Action Network International/flickr/cc)

Front-lines communities led the People's Climate March on September 21, 2014 in New York City. (Photo: Climate Action Network International/flickr/cc)

Obama Climate Plan: Testament to People Power, But Much More to Do

"We have our work cut out for us. Communities will have to be organized and engaged." —Michael Leon Guerrero, Climate Justice Alliance

Sarah Lazare

President Barack Obama on Monday officially unrolled the first-ever federal plan to limit power plant emissions of greenhouse gases, in a move that environmental campaigners are alternately calling "significant" and "not enough."

There is one point, however, that has broad agreement: the gains in this plan are the product of international people-powered movements for real climate justice—and the fight is far from over.

"The climate crisis is one of the most urgent and defining issues of our time, and we are very glad to see the Obama administration advancing a response that lifts up environmental justice principles," Cindy Wiesner of the U.S.-based Grassroots Global Justice Alliance told Common Dreams. "At the same time, the Clean Power Plan and the related draft of the upcoming United Nations climate negotiations in Paris are reliant on extremely dangerous technologies like fracking and nuclear power, as well as false solutions such as cap-and-trade and carbon markets."  

"Our collective survival," Wiesner continued, "is riding on the ability of our generation to keep pressure on world leaders to shift away from the fossil fuel economy and advance a genuine just transition to renewable energy."

"Our collective survival is riding on the ability of our generation to keep pressure on world leaders to shift away from the fossil fuel economy and advance a genuine just transition to renewable energy."
—Cindy Wiesner, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance
Meaningful Gains, Serious Concessions

The finalized Clean Power Plan, announced jointly by Obama and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Gina McCarthy, is being widely heralded as the biggest step any president has taken to combat climate change. The proposal rests on reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from domestic power plants—a significant move, given that coal-fired plants are the single biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. Before now, there were no federal rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants.

The plan requires reductions state-by-state, with the aim of a nationwide 32 percent slash to carbon emissions from power plants by 2030, as compared to levels in 2005. This is an increase from cuts of 30 percent that were proposed by the Obama administration in a draft released last year.

The plan also calls for renewable energy, like wind and solar, to account for 28 percent of nationwide power capacity—an increase from 22 percent which was proposed last year.

According to an analysis from the Climate Justice Alliance, under the plan, "states will receive additional incentives to make energy efficiency investments in low-income communities, be required to demonstrate how they are engaging with communities, and conduct an environmental analysis as a part of their implementation."

However, the plan also includes concessions to states, utilities, and the fossil fuels industry.

States will be allowed to rely on controversial and widely-opposed energy sources in their plans, including natural gas and nuclear power, and will be granted flexibility in terms of how they implement their cuts—inserting what some argue are serious weaknesses. "If a state fails to submit a plan, the EPA will seek to impose a federal solution, which is likely to include cap-and-trade – type polluting trading schemes," Food & Water Watch pointed out in a statement released Monday. The organization referred to market-based schemes that allow for the sale of emissions permits—an approach that has been criticized for concentrating pollution in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

"This rule is merely a down payment on the U.S’s historic climate responsibility. It isn’t enough for the U.S. to merely make reforms to our existing utility structure." 
—Erich Pica, Friends of the Earth

States will also be granted more time to meet compliance standards, with the deadline extended to 2022, rather than 2020. In addition, they will have until 2018 to submit their plans, rather than 2017.

Michael Leon Guerrero, organizer with the Climate Justice Alliance and Our Power campaign, told Common Dreams that the gains in Obama's plan "wouldn't be on the table if not for social movements organizing to address the issue of climate and environmental justice. The version out now is different from what was presented last year, and there were a lot of comments to the original draft, with environmental justice communities engaging in the process."

"We're hearing there are improvements in different areas, including environmental justice, but there is still a ways to go around loopholes, allowance for natural gas and nuclear power, false market-based solutions, and more," Guerrero added. "But if it weren't for communities organizing, we wouldn't see anything as good."

Meanwhile, environmental and civil rights campaigner Van Jones expressed hope in an article for CNN that the plan will bring meaningful change to low-income communities of color: "After all, one in six black kids and one in nine Latino children has asthma. Seventy-eight percent of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a dirty, polluting coal plant. African-Americans are also more likely to live in coastal areas and die during heat waves." 

"We have our work cut out for us"

Many noted, however, that there is still much more work to do.

"We have our work cut out for us. Communities will have to be organized and engaged."
—Michael Leon Guerrero, Climate Justice Alliance

"This is the most significant action yet from the Obama administration, but it's still not enough to secure his climate legacy," said May Boeve, executive director for 350.org. "Cutting coal emissions is low hanging fruit, the next challenge will be standing up to Big Oil. We'll be pushing the administration to build on this announcement and take the additional steps necessary to protect our climate, like rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, ending fracking, and preventing Arctic and offshore drilling."

"While historic, when measured against increasingly dire scientific warnings it is clear the rule is not enough to address our climate crisis," said Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica. "This rule is merely a down payment on the U.S’s historic climate responsibility. It isn’t enough for the U.S. to merely make reforms to our existing utility structure. We must boldly reshape our economy by democratizing energy to move beyond fossil fuels, including natural gas."

 As climate campaigners press the Obama administration to take up more serious change, they are also preparing for attacks against the plan from the right, including an expected flurry of lawsuits from utilities companies and states.
 
"It's going to be a state-by-state struggle, and also much more needs to be done at the federal level, as there are approaches that concern us, especially market-based solutions and what those might look like in different states," said Guerrero. "We have our work cut out for us. Communities will have to be organized and engaged."

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