The climate time clock: A presidential action plan

When America finally picks the next president two weeks from now, the clock will start ticking on a set of milestones critical to his leadership on climate. The first, lasting about 11 weeks, will be the transition period that ends with the Jan. 20 inauguration.

The President-elect and his team will have an enormous amount of work to do in a very short time to get ready for the extraordinary set of issues he will inherit, including two wars, a financial crisis and the restoration of American leadership in the most pressing and challenging issue of our time, and perhaps all time — global climate change.

Next comes the traditional honeymoon period in which a president sets the tone of his administration and has the best chance of implementing his agenda. It lasts for the six months between inauguration and Congress’s August recess. This short period, just an eighth of the first term, will have a lot to do with the president’s success for the remainder of his time in office.

How should the president use this time to jump-start federal leadership on climate change?

A number of public policy organizations working on climate change are submitting their ideas. One body of proposals — the Presidential Climate Action Plan (PCAP) — is being unveiled this week after nearly two years of research. The plan has been developed by a team at the University of Colorado Denver. I lead the team, but the more important influence has come from a national advisory committee of nearly 20 diverse experts — from research commissioned for the PCAP, and from the excellent work of many public policy organizations including the Center for American Progress, the Alliance to Save Energy, the Apollo Alliance, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, the American Solar Energy Institute, the Center for Policy and Budget Priorities, and many others.

The final version of PCAP contains scores of recommendations for presidential leadership on energy and climate security, and on related issues including environmental stewardship, national defense, ocean ecology, fresh water resources, equity, international leadership, adaptation and more. We will make the full plan available to the president-elect and his team just after Nov. 4.

What’s has been released this week is a first look at the plan in condensed form, from St. Martin’s Press. It is being published electronically, complete with hyperlinks to many of the research and resource documents behind the ideas. Among its recommendations:

  • The President-elect should create at least two task forces during the transition — one to begin creating a roadmap out of the current financial crisis and into a 21st Century U.S. economy; the other to create an intergovernmental climate action strategy that coordinates the powers of federal, state and local governments. President John F. Kennedy created 29 task forces during his transition period, nearly all of which returned their findings by inauguration day.
  • Shortly after taking office, the president should issue a series of executive orders that make full use of the powers he can exercise without further action by Congress. One directive should forbid political interference with federal climate science; another should require climate impact statements for all federally funded projects.
  • In his inaugural speech, the president should assert America’s commitment to work with the international community to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
  • Before nations gather in Copenhagen in December 2009 to work on a post-Kyoto agreement, the Administration should negotiate a bilateral agreement with China to collaborate on reaching specific but differentiated carbon-reduction targets. This agreement would be both a symbolic and substantive breakthrough between the world’s largest developing and developed nations.

PCAP has been an unusual project, not only in its comprehensiveness, but also in its advisory committee’s agreement to disagree. The committee decided not to require consensus on the plan’s ideas, since consensus often is the enemy of boldness. Instead, it instructed the project team to push the envelope on what’s possible and doable in the first 100 days of the next presidency.

That’s what PCAP does. Many people familiar with the onslaught that typically greets an incoming president will argue it’s unlikely that No. 44 will be able to implement so many action items in so short a time, given the extraordinary challenges he will face. Unfortunately, the worsening threat of climate change won’t wait. If the president chooses the nation’s best experts for critical positions in his administration, if the Senate expedites the confirmation process, and if the president creates a National Climate and Energy Council in the White House to coordinate action (an idea based closely on a proposal by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and former Sen. Tim Wirth), he will be able to launch a World War II-scale effort to tackle climate change.

And that, PCAP suggests, is precisely what he needs to do.

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8 Responses to The climate time clock: A presidential action plan

  1. alex says:

    If you visit the Obama site you will see that ‘energy and environment’ is just one of a long list of issues, and not one that appears to be given any special priority.

    Worse still, if you drill down into the proposed actions they include a range of things that are likely to make emissions worse, certainly in the showrt term. For example, more domestic drilling, the Alaska gas pipeline, SPR swaps, $1000 per-family energy subsidy, ‘use it or lose it’ drilling policy.

    I hope the ‘80% by 2050’ and ‘reengage with the IPCC’ goals mean something, but I’m not too optimistic. Both the UK and US have massive budget and trade deficits and these will inevitably puch climate change off the agenda.

  2. David B. Benson says:

    Tick tock.

    Tick tock.

    … :-(

  3. paulm says:

    S.W.A.T. Team!

  4. hapa says:

    making people pay to read a summary of a policy proposal is bad strategy. there should be a 15-20 page version online.

  5. gaiasdaughter says:

    Alex wrote: “Worse still, if you drill down into the proposed actions they include a range of things that are likely to make emissions worse, certainly in the showrt term. For example, more domestic drilling, the Alaska gas pipeline, SPR swaps, $1000 per-family energy subsidy, ‘use it or lose it’ drilling policy.”

    To be successful as a politician, one has to know how to play the game. And Obama does. His ‘use it or lose it’ slogan makes it clear to the American public that the oil industry is not using the leases they already have — so why should we give them more? And Obama knows that to win the election and the cooperation of Congress, he must be willing to compromise. His energy plan is not perfect but he seems willing to listen to the experts in any given field. Maybe the PCAP will head him in the right direction.

  6. No bail-out from global warming………..

    There’s no bailout for the next crisis

    Monday, October 20, 2008 The Oregonian

    The recent haggling over how to solve the nation’s economic crisis seems to have done little to ease the anxieties of either Wall Street or Main Street. And with good reason: Intuitively, we know we haven’t seen the worst of it yet.

    Watching a lifetime of stock options head south? Worried about where you’ll find the money to pay for college or about the spiraling costs of health care? Certainly nothing could hurt worse than a foreclosure, could it? Well, maybe it could. If $700 billion sounds like a lot, try fathoming $9 trillion — roughly 13 times the cost of today’s hotly debated bailout. That’s the projected cost of letting global climate change go unaddressed within this decade.

    The thorough shakeup of today’s economic climate foreshadows an even more disastrous global crisis heading our way. The same belief in unlimited, unchecked growth (some would say outright greed) that fattened our economy on a diet of junk bonds and hollow lending is also strip-mining our planet’s environment of the currency that nature safely invested for us over millions of years, and upon which all life — including our own — depends.

    The concept of peak oil is not just some naysayers’ delusion. According to the U.S. Energy Department’s own findings, commonly called the Hirsch report and issued in 2005, it’s an unavoidable reality, one that is hurtling toward us faster than we know what to do about.

    But like the blind eye that was turned on the proliferation of high-risk, foolhardy mortgages in the midst of a slowing economy, we’ve bolstered our bravado in the face of such warnings while enthusing about drilling offshore and in the arctic.

    While we’ve been busy digging our fossil-fuel foundations out from under us with the same kind of naive bluster and faith in infinite growth that gutted the economy, we’ve also been busy ruining things at the top as our upper atmosphere becomes choked with carbon dioxide, leaving us in an environmental demise of our own doing.

    When it comes to the economy, a few sleights of hand and a heavy toll on taxpayers, all partisan bickering aside, can be called upon to help us avert disaster and restore faith in the unlimited expansion model. But when it comes to nature’s bank, cashing out is forever. No amount of midnight meetings, government-ordered buyouts or credit freezes can save a habitat laid fallow by years of unregulated dumping of chemical waste, nor can they lower our thermostats to an inhabitable temperature in the face of global warming.

    Sound policy and the pursuit of new technologies might ameliorate some of our excesses, helping to slow down the rate of climate change and postponing the date of disaster. But like the banking and credit crisis that arrived to the surprise of so many experts — despite the many warnings sounded years earlier — environmental failure is going to rear its ugly head someday.

    And when mother earth forecloses on us, there will be nowhere else to go.

    Lisa Weasel is an associate professor of biology at Portland State University and a board member of The Greenhouse Network.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  7. P. G. Dudda says:

    I think bilateral talks with China and/or India will be critical for setting a working tone on the emissions issues. The potential sticking point is that any viable agreement cannot be based on tit-for-tat changes or reductions; they must acknowledge the per-capita differences in the countries’ usage levels, and also acknowledge that the challenges for a technoeconomically advanced nation are quite different than those for a developing one. Unfortunately, I can easily imagine people insisting on a tit-for-tat system instead of a truly effective program for change.

  8. Bill Becker says:

    Hapa – I take your point about having a summary of the “100 Day” plan posted on line. Better still, we’ll have the entire plan — much more comprehensive than the St. Martin’s book — posted at around election time. It’s designed for the transition team, but will be available to everyone both in summary and in complete form, with hyperlinks to key studies on which the proposals are based.

    P.G. Dudda — I take your point, too, about the need for bilateral agreements with China, and later India, that recognize the differences between our developed economy in the U.S., and their emerging economies. That’s one of the goals of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that the U.S., China and more than 190 other nations have signed. The mission of an early agreement with China would be to demonstrate a “differentiated” commitment to reducing greenhouse gases that recognizes China’s need to raise the quality of life of its population, but with the lowest-carbon energy resources available.

    With that objective in mind, Gov. Schwarzenegger is hosting an international meeting of “sub-national” officials — U.S. governors, Chinese provincial officials and others — in November to sign a carbon -reduction agreement. Participation by China’s provincial governors will be cleared by the Central Government. If successful, that meeting and agreement would pave the way for a U.S-China collaboration and make it more plausible that the next Administration could reach a national-level pact in 2009.