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.