President Obama has received plenty of credit from environmentalists — along with heavy bipartisan criticism — for his dramatic actions to fight climate change, but the fate of his agenda rests largely with his White House successor.
A heralded climate deal with China, along with a variety of internal U.S. steps needed to meet emissions targets Mr. Obama laid out in Beijing this month, is not a treaty or otherwise legally binding, and thus could be taken apart relatively easily through executive action by the next occupant of the Oval Office.
There is also a chance that the president’s climate change actions won’t survive even that long. Republicans have vowed to fight the deal tooth and nail after taking control of the Senate in January, and lawsuits challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon emissions already have been filed.
If Mr. Obama’s slate of climate actions makes it to 2017, the next president ultimately will determine its fate.
It looks as if the future of the program, centered on unprecedented restrictions on power plant emissions, will be in relatively safe hands should a Democrat win the presidency in 2016. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and other candidates, while not specifically promising to adhere to every piece of the president’s road map, have voiced serious concerns over climate change and appear willing to make it a priority.
Still, analysts say the president has taken a big political risk and that his global pledge with China is especially weak. The deal calls on the U.S. to reduce emissions at least 26 percent by 2025, but China has little to do before capping its emissions in 2030.
The agreement almost surely would be scrapped by a Republican president. Prospective candidates have routinely bashed Mr. Obama’s climate change priorities, and with Republicans poised to take over the Senate, there is virtually no chance the White House can codify those priorities through legislation.
“He’s kind of marketing this as a bigger commitment than it really is. The Chinese understand that it’s a weak commitment — it’s the weakest commitment he can make under our system,” said Julian Ku, a constitutional law professor and faculty director of international programs at Hofstra University’s law school. “It has a life beyond his presidency. It’s a political pledge. This kind of promise he’s made is the weakest kind of promise he can make. The next president certainly could say, ‘I no longer adhere to the promise we made to you, China.’”
To meet the president’s goals, the EPA would have to move ahead with a variety of actions, including increases in auto fuel efficiency standards and, more important, limits on power plant emissions.
A rule limiting emissions from existing plants won’t be finalized until next year, meaning it likely won’t go into effect until 2016.
That leaves Mr. Obama’s successor with a great deal of leverage over whether the plan — being implemented under authority the EPA says it has under the 1970s Clean Air Act — moves forward as scheduled.
The rule will reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power-generation sector by 30 percent by 2030, the EPA estimates.
But that regulation and the administration’s larger climate change agenda have become punching bags for Republicans, including those who may seek the presidency.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, called the EPA approach an “assault on our economy” and vowed this summer to fight it.
Also this summer, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Republicans should consider legal action to stop the “radical ideology” in Mr. Obama’s environmental and energy policies.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also has hinted that he wouldn’t follow Mr. Obama’s climate change path. He said in September that he would not allow his state to rejoin a cap-and-trade system aimed at reducing carbon emissions along the East Coast.
The White House strongly supports the system.
“I think it’s a completely useless plan,” Mr. Christie said, as quoted by The New York Times.
Faced with that reality, environmental groups said they would spend the next two years trying to bolster public support for Mr. Obama’s actions and seeking to expose Republican “climate deniers,” hoping to limit their national electability in 2016.
“We’re working hard for the next two years to solidify the president’s climate action plan,” said Sara Chieffo, legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters.
Keeping a Democrat in the White House is central to making the plan work.
Potential Democratic presidential candidates, while not having gone into detail about their own climate change platforms, have expressed broad support for confronting what they call a grave challenge.
“No matter what the deniers try to assert, sea levels are rising, ice caps are melting, storms, droughts and wildfires are wreaking havoc,” Mrs. Clinton said in September at a clean energy summit in Las Vegas. “The threat is real, but so is the opportunity.”
Mr. O’Malley, who also is pondering a White House bid, has urged the Senate to reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. He said the project would produce too much carbon pollution and accelerate climate change.
He also called for the creation of a “national renewable energy grid.”
Vice President Joseph R. Biden has spoken out frequently in support of the administration’s climate change agenda.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who has said he is considering a presidential run, also has zeroed in on climate change as a key issue, as has Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who has become less dismissive of progressives’ calls that she run.