In fact, some Republicans, including Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, were willing to go forward with a more limited climate billthat would have restricted emissions only from power plants. But the president’s own party would not unify even around that, with Democrats from industrial and coal states digging in against him. Ironically, Mr. Obama would end up with regulations that narrowly target power plant emissions.
“The White House wanted 60 votes on climate, and they weren’t interested in Republican votes,” Mr. Alexander said in an interview. “Now it’s back to power plant only. The lesson here is that if people who want a result would be a little bit more flexible, they might actually get one.”
In defeat, the president appeared cowed. Campaigning against Mitt Romney in 2012, he barely mentioned climate change.
But soon after Election Day, Mr. Obama interrupted a broad discussion with historians about the country’s challenges with a surprising assertion. Douglas Brinkley, a historian who attended the session, recalled, “Out of nowhere, he said, ‘If we don’t do anything on the climate issue, all bets are off.’”
Mr. Obama, who understood that a legislative push would be fruitless, told his advisers to figure out how to enact deep emissions cuts without Congress. They found a way through the Clean Air Act of 1970, which gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to issue regulations on dangerous pollutants.
In 2014, Mr. Obama unveiled the first draft of what would become the Clean Power Plan: a set of Clean Air Act rules that could lead to the closing of hundreds of coal-fired power plants.
The move enraged critics, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, whose state relies heavily on coal.
Another critic, Laurence H. Tribe, likened the rules to “burning the Constitution” — a charge that might have stung, since Mr. Tribe, a liberal constitutional scholar, was a mentor to Mr. Obama at Harvard Law School.
Mr. Obama dismissed the criticism as the voice of Mr. Tribe’s client, Peabody Energy, the nation’s largest coal company, which filed for bankruptcy protection in April. “You know, I love Larry,” he said, but “when it comes to energy issues, Larry has a history of representing fossil fuel industries in big litigation cases.”
The legality of the climate rules is likely to be decided by the Supreme Court, the composition of which depends on the outcome of the presidential election. Deep-pocketed corporations will not give up the legal fight easily, even after a Supreme Court decision, and Republicans in Congress will continue their legislative attacks. If the rules survive, they will almost certainly cost the coal industry thousands of jobs.
“What we owe the remaining people who are making a living mining coal is to be honest with them,” Mr. Obama said, “and to say that, look, the economy is shifting. How we use energy is shifting. That’s going to be true here, but it’s also going to be true internationally.”
Scrutinizing the Science
Few people would have described Mr. Obama as a climate evangelist when he ran for the White House in 2008. While he invoked the rising seas and heating planet to thrill his young supporters, he did not have the long record of climate activism of Al Gore or John Kerry, who is now his secretary of state. Like many things with Mr. Obama, his evolution on climate was essentially an intellectual journey.
Mr. Obama immersed himself in the scientific literature, which left little doubt that the planet was warming at an accelerating rate. “My top science adviser, John Holdren, periodically will issue some chart or report or graph in the morning meetings,” he said, “and they’re terrifying.”
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