Lisa Jackson is leaving the EPA. Considering the amount of hounding she had to deal with from Republicans, and the amount of timidity she had to face from a White House (unjustifiably) terrified of moving significant environmental regulations, and still managed to make a dent:

Despite a number of disappointments, however, Ms. Jackson has achieved some notable firsts, including the finding that carbon dioxide and five other gases that contribute to global warming meet the definition of pollutants under the Clean Air Act. That so-called endangerment finding, which has survived federal court challenges from industry, allowed the agency to negotiate strict new emissions standards for cars and light trucks, the first time the federal government has limited global warming pollution.

The new vehicle standards will eliminate billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions and double the fuel efficiency of the American light-duty transportation fleet over the next decade.

The finding also formed the basis of the first steps toward regulating greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, and, possibly, toward requiring existing ones to reduce global warming pollution. The rule governing new power plants in effect bans the construction of new coal-fired power plants unless they capture carbon dioxide emissions, a technology so far unproven on a commercial scale.

Environmental issues are hardly a strong spot for the Obama Administration, surprisingly, as they have again and again chosen to back down rather than to fight for cleaner air and more muscular regulatory action to curb the worst effects of climate change. I don’t think it’s because Obama is a secret doubter or some sort of coal stooge. I do think it’s partly a function of his wanting a second term, and partly a function of his surrounding himself with neoliberal/corporatist types whose fear of crossing “job creators” with burdensome regulations, along with many other things, rubbed off on the man. And I also think it’s an open question whether Obama really has the stomach for the sort of standoff that more significant environmental action would require. I mean, the guy mentioned higher taxes on the wealthy in every speech, but he was willing to cave on a huge chunk of those taxes (and make Social Security cuts!) as soon as that winged unicorn of a bipartisan debt deal came into the picture.

Will his second term be any better? It’s fair to say that Jackson has suffered the sort of de rigeur treatment that Republicans have given to other African-American women in the Administration (see Rice, Susan). It’s at least plausible that a white male successor would face somewhat less abuse at their hands, not that that’s a reason to go in that direction. But the president ought to realize that things are shifting on the issue. I posted last week that almost 80% of the public believes climate change is occurring and almost the same percentage favors action to stop it. Obama should shake off the fear and use this kind of popular support for a series of tough measures early in his second term. It’s still possible to cobble together a cap-and-trade-like program using EPA authority under the Clean Air Act, Obama should direct the new director to do this right away. He should then direct the new EPA Administrator to institute tough new smog standards, much tougher than the ones he had scotched in late 2011, and he should refrain from interfering from any further decisionmaking in the EPA for the remainder of his presidency. Those should be the first two items on the to-do list, and if Obama fails to act on them immediately, then he should be severely castigated. Jackson did literally all she could when faced with the pincer whose edges included Obama and the Republicans, and she withstood a lot of unfair criticism and abuse to do it. Next time, Obama needs to have the EPA’s back. It’s true that the US is on target to cut 17% of its carbon emissions by 2020, but considering that we’ve seen almost-daily headlines recently about how the climate is developing much closer to the worst-case scenarios, now is not the time to leave stuff on the table.

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