President Barack Obama puts his jacket down before speaking about climate change, Tuesday at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.. (Associated Press / Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama puts his jacket down before speaking about climate change, Tuesday at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.. (Associated Press / Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama puts his jacket down before speaking about climate change, Tuesday at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.. (Associated Press / Evan Vucci)

CHICAGO — As President Obama laid out a plan Tuesday to step up federal efforts to fight climate change, activists in the city where he launched his political career welcomed the move with guarded optimism.

Tuesday evening, residents in the Pilsen neighborhood gathered at a senior center across the street from the Fisk Generating Station, an archaic coal-fired power plant of the type that would be targeted for new regulations.

Fisk, however, already shut down last year, and the occasion on this evening was an open house regarding the U.S. EPA’s ongoing cleanup of a former smelter site next door. Between such local developments and Obama’s climate plan, several residents said things may be looking up environmentally across the board.

But as for real national changes in energy and climate policy, they remain somewhat skeptical given the political opposition Obama faces.

“Everyone in Washington thinks the weather changes are not related to our emissions,” said Harry Irizarry, 60, a community activist who lives in a nearby retirement home. “The floods, the storms, the erratic weather we’ve been having is positively our fault, but no one wants to believe it.”

With the climate plan, he said as menacing thunder clouds darkened outside, “I’m really glad Obama is trying, we’ll see what happens.”

Jerry Mead-Lucero, a local activist heavily involved in the efforts to close the Fisk plant, said he was surprised and pleased at Obama’s announcement, and that it may influence Chicago grassroots groups’ plans for a major action in August, where they had planned to “call out the Obama administration on climate.”

“It’s exciting to see such a relatively bold statement coming out of the White House,” he said. “This is a big step forward. But I hope it’s not too little too late. It’s a shame it’s taken this long, and whether it results in action is another story.”

Mead-Lucero invokes early statements and hopes about health care reform – including the idea of a public option — in expressing his doubts that the climate plan will really come to fruition as described.

“Obama and the Democrats are so committed to a path with industry, they end up coming up with these Mickey Mouse solutions,” he said.

Mead-Lucero said he was also disturbed to read the comments sections of articles about the climate plan, full of missives from climate change skeptics.

“I’m flabbergasted, it seems like the energy companies really have created a grassroots climate change denial movement,” he said.

Indeed, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, one of the most prominent voices of that movement, was quick to denounce Obama’s plan.

Calling carbon dioxide “the elixir of life,” representatives from Heartland said “alarmist climate models predict far too much warming and have no basis in reality.”

Elsewhere, critics of the plan raised concerns about economic impacts.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association called the plan “a regressive new climate tax on America’s most economically vulnerable citizens” who “depend on coal-fired generation for affordable electric power and would be disproportionately penalized by this scheme.”

Nic Clark of Michigan Clean Water Action noted, however, that the costs of maintaining the status quo “are already apparent: more destructive and deadly extreme weather that threatens our economy, like the floods in West Michigan this year and the extreme heat last year that crippled Michigan’s fruit crop production.”

“Limiting carbon pollution is another step to protect public health and preserve our Great Lakes way of life,” he wrote in an emailed statement.

J. Drake Hamilton of St. Paul-based Fresh Energy (the organization where Midwest Energy News is based) echoed that concern.

“Minnesota has seen four 1-in-1,000 year floods in the last ten years, and the national bill for extreme weather costs was over $120 billion. Broad, common-sense action to cut carbon pollution and damp down our risks is prudent.”

Ohio-based American Electric Power, named in a recent report as the worst carbon polluter in America, appears to be adopting a wait-and-see approach.

“The president appears to be taking a balanced approach to addressing the issue, and that’s positive,” according to a statement cited in a report in the Charleston Gazette.

AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry later told the Gazette the utility can achieve “meaningful reductions and minimize economic pain” if Obama’s plan “includes maximum flexibility within the confines of the Clean Air Act.”

Bob King, president of the Detroit-based United Auto Workers, commended Obama for “moving forward on this critical issue.”

“We learned from our experience in the auto industry,” said King in an emailed statement, “that when regulations are done thoughtfully, they can lead to innovation, job creation and greater global competitiveness.”

Midwest Energy News journalism fellow Kari Lydersen reported from Chicago. Editor Ken Paulman contributed to this report.

Michigan Clean Water Action and Fresh Energy are both members of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.

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