RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As we just heard, tomorrow, the Environmental Protection Agency will announce new regulations aimed at cutting carbon pollution. To hear more about that, we're joined by Michael Oppenheimer. He's a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University. These regulations are the president's most ambitious plan yet to combat climate change. Professor Oppenheimer, from your vantage point, how significant is this announcement?
MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: It's very significant. It's the first time that the federal government has imposed regulations on existing electric power plants. And that's important because electric power plants are the source of about 40 percent of United States carbon dioxide emissions. And carbon dioxide is the major human-made source of global warming. So this is the place that can, if it's pursued vigorously, crack the back of U.S. greenhouse gas omissions.
MARTIN: So if these new rules go through, where would that put the U.S., in terms of its contributions to climate change? Would we, as a country, be where you feel we should be?
OPPENHEIMER: I want to be cautious about this because there's a lot that can intervene between drafting the finalization of the regulations, their implementation and actually getting the reductions down. You have to remember, there's going to be a new administration, one way or the other, with the 2016 election.
And it's possible that any progress that's made now could be reversed by a subsequent administration. I seriously doubt it. There's always a possibility that the Congress could intervene at some point. The Congress could go over completely, for instance, to the Republican Party, which has been opposed to this sort of regulation. And regulations can be repealed.
But those caveats aside, this would start the U.S. on a glide path downward in a very serious way. And if a regulatory stringency is continued and increased over time, it would eventually, over the course of a couple of decades, bring the U.S. emissions down quite low, especially coordinated with other actions, like continuing to increase the stringency of regulations on the motor vehicle sector. So this is a very good, not first step, but second or third step in a direction that has to have many more steps.
MARTIN: What about the external influence of this new policy? Do you think this is a policy change that will be significant enough to have influence on how other countries - in particular, China - deal with their own greenhouse gas emissions?
OPPENHEIMER: The U.S. has always been ambivalent at the international level. We'v said we want to reduce emissions, but U.S. pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. And we haven't really exercised the leadership that's necessary. Despite not being the world biggest emitter anymore, the U.S. is still the world's biggest super power. And people look to us for leadership on issues like this. And when we don't exercise leadership, the countries that really want to reduce their omissions lose heart 'cause it's hard for them to make the case to their own populations. And those that don't really want to really reduce their omissions have a place to hide by just saying, well, the U.S. isn't doing it, so why should we?
So while the U.S. bellying up to the bar and saying, we're going to reduce our emissions and actually doing it is only a first step, it's the key that needs to unlock the problem at the international level and bring about an agreement that involves all the big emitting countries.
MARTIN: Michael Oppenheimer is the Albert G. Milibank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton University. He joined us from New York. Professor Oppenheimer, thank you so much.
OPPENHEIMER: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.