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CNN asked terrible climate questions at the debate. Here's a better one.


CNN doesn't take climate change seriously, so it's no surprise that last night's Democratic debate featured a tepid discussion of the issue. A young woman asked the candidates how they'd handle global warming. Anderson Cooper interrupted to talk more about Jim Webb (why?). He called on Bernie Sanders to prove he was "tougher" on climate than Hillary Clinton. Then Clinton talked about hunting Chinese delegates at Copenhagen.

It was a brief — and unenlightening — exchange.

Anyway, here's a suggestion. There are piles of things you could ask the candidates about climate change, energy, environmental policy. But one question that moderators should really consider asking is how these would-be presidents plan to wield the vast executive authority over carbon dioxide emissions that has been built up under the Obama administration.

This goes for both Democrats and Republicans. Whoever becomes president next will have huge influence over climate policy via the Environmental Protection Agency. Unlike many areas of policy, they won't need Congress's approval to act here. Yet none of the candidates have really elaborated on how they'd use this authority.

The EPA now has huge sway over climate policy

I wrote about the details here, but the short version is the EPA now regulates CO2 and methane from cars, trucks, power plants, and oil and gas operations — all with the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to about 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. This is all done under the Clean Air Act, so the next president will have a lot of leeway to expand or weaken these regulations. Given the deadlock in Congress, this is where most action on US climate policy may well take place in the next five years.

Ask Clinton or Sanders: Some analysts have pointed out that the United States can't hit its 2025 climate targets without expanding Obama's current carbon regulations. So would they extend EPA authority to crack down on emissions from refiners, or chemical plants, or cement plants, or airplanes, or other industries? (Martin O'Malley, for one, has said he'd do this.)

Ask Marco Rubio or Donald Trump. They don't seem to like Obama's climate policies. But would they work with Congress to repeal EPA's carbon authority? If that failed, would they still enforce the Clean Power Plan, which regulates CO2 from power plants? Or would they try to start all over with a completely different rule (which is a lot harder than it sounds)? Would they keep the fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, or try to weaken them when they come up for midterm review in 2017?

Those aren't the only climate questions worth asking, obviously. You could go further and ask how the president would deal with coal leasing or fracking regulations or negotiations with China or grid neutrality. Go wild! But anyone who enters the White House in 2017 is going to have a ton of climate policy discretion via the EPA's Clean Air Act. It'd be nice to zero in on how they plan to use it.

Read more: How the next president could expand Obama's climate policies — or dismantle them

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