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June 25, 2013 3:23 PM Slow-Jamming the Big Steps on Climate Change

By Ed Kilgore

It will take a while to assess the impact of the president’s much-anticipated speech laying out his agenda on climate change at Georgetown today. According to those familiar with the prepared text (no transcript is available just yet), he made as little news as he could, given the circumstances, and avoided any defiant statements about Republican obstruction.

Grist’s Dave Roberts has the most comprehensive take as of now. After noting the desire of both green folk and conservatives for a Big Moment, Roberts observes:

[T]he plan is filled to the brim with bureaucratic language: partnerships and working groups and task forces, coordinating and standard-setting and sharing best practices. There’s much discussion of programs that are underway — a decent chunk of the plan amounts to “look at this thing we’re already doing” — and many pledges for further programs. It’s federal agencies doing what federal agencies do.
Even the biggest potential piece of drama, EPA standards on power plants, has been rendered drama-less. All the plan says is that Obama will issue a memorandum telling EPA to develop such standards. Well thanks! Sort of required by law, but whatever. It’s a decent-sized political deal, I guess, that he’s finally saying it outright. The burning question about these standards, though, is how strict they will be — they could range from a firecracker to a nuke, or hit the perfect sweet spot in the middle — but the plan says nothing at all about stringency, only that EPA must “work with states” (again, required by law) and make the standards “flexible” (again, right there in statute). There’s nothing here we didn’t already know.
The one bit of legitimate news made about EPA standards isn’t in the plan, but was revealed on a call with “senior administration officials” (sigh). Namely, there is a timeline: An initial proposal on existing plants will be out by June 2014, and a final rule by June 2015. Given how many court-ordered deadlines EPA has blown through, the words of an anonymous official this far in advance probably don’t mean much. But it’s something.

One remark in Obama’s speech that is making news, if someone confused news, is this (from Grist’s Lisa Hymas):

Big news from President Obama’s climate speech: He says he won’t approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline if it will “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
It’s hard to know exactly what he means by that, but it’s a surprise that he mentioned Keystone at all. Pundits expected he would keep silent on the issue.

Forbes’ Christopher Helman thinks it’s a hint, wrapped in conditional language friendly to opponents, that the pipeline will in fact be approved. The AP story on the speech leans in the opposite direction. And these sort of conflicting interpretations are probably exactly what the White House wanted.

I still think conservatives will find a way to freak out over this speech as a sign that Obama’s letting his freak flag fly as a radical business-hating neo-pagan agent of Agenda 21. But he’s not making it easy for them with today’s low-key, slow-jamming speech.

UPDATE: Al Gore sure liked the speech a lot, though, calling it “the best address on climate by any president ever.” Come to think of it, there hasn’t been a lot of competition.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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