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Obama bypasses Congress again on climate change

President Obama, who said last month that divisions in Congress are “too deep” to tackle climate change, bypassed Capitol Hill again this week with another effort to reduce climate-warming emissions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Thursday, accompanied by officials from Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Mexico and Sweden, a joint effort to curb the short-lived emissions of pollutants including soot (also called black carbon), methane and hydrofluorocarbons that account for 30% to 40% of global warming. The United States plans to contribute $12 million and Canada $3 million over two years to begin the project, which will be run by the United Nations Environment Program.

“One of the benefits of focusing on pollutants that are short-lived is, if we can reduce them significantly, we will have a noticeable effect on our climate in relatively short order,” Clinton said at the State Department announcement. Scientists estimate that cutting these emissions can help prevent millions of deaths from pollution and lower global temperatures 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.

Clinton said it’s still important to reduce the primary culprit of climate change: carbon dioxide emissions, which remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and which the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has been trying to address for decades with little success. Yet she said action is needed on short-lived pollutants that can also cause extensive damage.

“Millions die annually from constantly breathing in black carbon soot that comes from cookstoves in their own homes, from diesel cars and trucks on their roads, from the open burning of agricultural waste in their fields,” Clinton said. “Furthermore, methane – a greenhouse gas more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide – can also be an abundant source of energy if we capture it instead of just venting it into the air or flaring it.”

In a recent study in Science, an international team of 24 scientists led by NASA climate modeler Drew Shindell identified 14 methane and black carbon control measures that include installing filters on diesel engines and capturing methane from oil and gas wells.

John Podesta, chairman of the board of the Center for American Progress, welcomed Clinton’s initiative but said it’s not the first time the Obama administration has tried to reduce these pollutants. In a review article, he said a handful of countries have blocked in the last few years an effort by the U.S., Mexico and Canada to reduce the emissions of hydrofluorocarbons.

In the announcement, Clinton said the Obama administration is taking other steps, too, to address climate change. She cited its efforts to double the fuel economy of cars and trucks by 2025, boost the energy efficiency of commercial buildings and home appliances, generate more power from renewable sources and put a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

Last month, in his State of the Union address, Obama mentioned “climate change” only once — to say that divisions were too deep ” right now” in Congress to deal with the issue. The House of Representatives passed a broad plan, which he supported, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 2009 but the effort died in the Senate.

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