President Obama will start to determine his second-term approach to climate change today as the House of Representatives sends final legislation to his desk that empowers him to bar U.S. airlines from complying with Europe’s climate law. If he signs the bill, Obama will not only be failing to take sufficient action to address climate change, but actively going out of his way to stop another country from doing so – a pretty extreme act at the worst possible time.

The controversy: the European Union has finally ended  airlines’ exemption from European pollution rules, and has applied its law equally to domestic and international flights that take off or land in Europe.  The policy is a big deal: it cuts pollution by an amount equivalent to taking 30 million cars off the road by 2020 – and does it at a cost of about three dollars per trans-Atlantic flight, less than the cost of a bag of absurdly expensive potato chips peddled to passengers during the flight. And far less than the $16.70 fee that the United States levies for every international flight that takes off and lands here.

Ford to City: Drop Dead

If President Obama signs the Thune bill, he can expect headlines like this from angry New Yorkers in the wake of Sandy.

So what does President Obama or Congress have to do with this? United Airlines and other major carriers don’t want to set a precedent of regulating airplane pollution, and they especially don’t want Americans to see how affordable limiting emissions could be. As a result, they’ve poured tens of millions of dollars into lobbying Congress and the administration to get them to pass legislation sponsored by Senators John Thune and Claire McCaskill that permits the administration to require US airlines to violate Europe’s climate law.

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If the President signs the Thune bill, US taxpayers could be on the hook for paying the up to $22 billion in fines airlines are expected to accrue for their law-breaking. It’s as if a American business tycoon went to Paris, stole the Mona Lisa, and then got US taxpayers to pay the Louvre billions of dollars in compensation.

The Thune bill is pretty unprecedented – and if President Obama signs it, the United States will suddenly be in the business of pretending to decide the legality of Europe’s regulations – which I’m pretty sure is not in the Constitution.

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To try and make President Obama’s decision easier, the European Union on Monday agreed to delay implementation of its law for foreign airlines by six months to give the International Civil Aviation Organization time to work out a global deal to cut airline pollution. Though ICAO has languished unproductively for 15 years in pursuit of such an aim—stymied by the airlines’ lobby -Europe’s climate law has breathed new life into the negotiations, generating some very cautious optimism that a global agreement may be on the horizon.  The Obama administration says it backs such an agreement, but under pressure from United Airlines and others, refuses to support anything concrete that would actually reduce pollution.

Fish Storm Surge climate change
Allison FisherOne of the many dead fish left behind after the storm surge inundated my in-laws’ Long Island neighborhood with salt water.

In other words, President Obama would be giving New Yorkers hungry for climate action a big old extremely soggy blanket. It’s like when Gerald Ford refused to help New York City during its hour of greatest need, the 1970’s fiscal crisis – and New York produced one of the great headlines of all time, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” (Ford subsequently blamed the headline for his 1976 election defeat).  Now, New York is in an hour of perhaps even greater need, and President Obama is threatening to abandon New Yorkers and all Americans to their fates when it comes to the rising seas swamping our neighborhoods.

As a native New Yorker, it’s hard to wrap my head around the idea that the President would consider being so callous. My in-laws on Long Island have been picking dead fish out of their closets for the last two weeks, lost their cars to the storm surge, and have months of recovery ahead of them – all due to a storm that at a minimum was made worse by rising sea levels. For President Obama to come in and tell them and other Sandy victims that he cares more about the airline lobby than their well-being and the global climate would be an epic disappointment, and a sweeping failure for his administration and legacy.