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Matthew Hoffmann and Steven Bernstein are are political science professors at the University of Toronto and co-directors of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Big policy initiatives like U.S. President Barack Obama's bold move to limit coal-fired power plant emissions are attractive to proponents because they appear to offer single-shot "game changers" in long political struggles. However, single policies, no matter how bold, rarely solve complex, long-term policy problems like climate change. The question is less about whether the EPA regulations will survive the inevitable political onslaught unscathed (they won't) than if these kinds of regulations can create pathways out of our current reliance on fossil fuels.

The power sector, target of these proposed regulations, only accounts for 38 per cent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions so the immediate reaction might be one of skepticism. Under the plan, states will be required to reduce emissions from power plants 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The reductions will take place on a state-by-state basis (instead of regulating individual power plants) and a number of flexibility mechanisms can be employed to reach the target. These include joining regional cap-and-trade systems, moving to renewable energy, investing in energy efficiency, and utilizing fuel-switching policies to move to lower polluting natural gas. Following a stakeholder comment period, and undoubtedly political and possibly legal challenges, final rules are expected in 2015.

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Shifting to the long-term question of decarbonization brings into sharper focus the conditions needed for such initiatives to do more than export the problem to other countries (literally in this case if U.S. coal is allowed to flood global markets) and actually change the political and economic calculus on climate change nationally and globally. The path to decarbonization from these proposed regulations is not an easy one, but it is possible to get there from here.

There will be winners and losers from these regulations and from any moves towards more aggressive climate action that they catalyze. Historically, the political problem has been that the winners from potential transitions do not always know who they are and thus lack coherent organization. This proposed set of regulations crystallizes the policy debate and provides an opportunity for the winners – the renewable energy industry, energy efficiency proponents, public health proponents, environmentalists – to coalesce and exert influence.

Losers from these regulations will fight hard against them and their interests should not be ignored. The flexibility mechanisms already announced should help, but proponents must highlight the ways revenues from a tax or purchases of emission permits will benefit or compensate coal workers and communities where coal has been a way of life.

The regulations can be a tipping point if they produce new coalitions for action on climate change and are attentive to the interests of those negatively affected by the transition away from fossil fuels.

More broadly, these regulations can contribute to developing decarbonization pathways by shifting the U.S. political debate to look more like Europe's, where the question is how, not whether, to act on climate change. The critical juncture for such a shift already occurred when the Obama administration moved to treat carbon dioxide like other harmful substances regulated by the EPA. But this is the pathway's first real test. If the regulation survives legal and legislative challenges, the entrenchment and institutionalization of this understanding in national regulation is the real game changer.

This focus on the instruments of policy – how fast and in what ways – as opposed to debating abstract future goals to cut emissions also distances the U.S. from Canada, where the debate is still over whether to decarbonize. It's thus no surprise U.S. ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman publically urged Canada to take more aggressive action on climate change the very same day President Obama announced the new regulations, recognizing that the oil sands and the controversial Keystone XL pipeline are the next stops along this policy pathway if the U.S. is to re-take leadership on climate change internationally.

Social science research tells us that when a policy goal starts to become taken for granted, following this pattern, it can have far-reaching effects. Normalization of climate policy leaves opponents fighting a rearguard action because it changes the commonsense around an issue. It also provides a long-term signal that could change how major players think about where to move capital and investments –towards renewables and energy efficiency. Once cities, states, and corporations begin to work towards the emissions targets in the proposed regulations, their orientation towards energy and climate may significantly change and they may take up different practices in multiple areas (transportation, buildings, urban development). The combination of aggressive targets in a particular sector and flexibility mechanisms that encourage a diverse range of action in multiple sectors have the potential to produce ripple effects that put the U.S. on a different trajectory, away from fossil fuels.

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Those catalytic effects could also extend to the moribund international negotiations where a major sticking point for the last 20 years has been complaints from developing countries that the U.S. has done too little to address climate change. These proposed regulations will nudge the U.S. closer to the 'leader' category in the global response to climate change (or at least further from the laggard label that has dogged the U.S. for years) perhaps making a global deal more palatable and realizable.

The carbon pathway has been locked in for over a hundred years, which has created strong coalitions of entrenched interests to support it. The battle is not so much over this single initiative, as about its ability to create new coalitions and entrench interests that further institutionalize and normalize the national and international policy pathways towards decarbonization.

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