There is no lack of ideas for what President Obama and the 111th Congress should do to address three of the most pressing issues they will face when they take office in January — global climate change, the energy crisis, and economic transformation. It may be winter in Washington, D.C., but it’s springtime in national politics. Policy agendas are blooming like cherry blossoms.
For example, last week alone, Washington, D.C. was introduced to three comprehensive plans to address economy, energy and climate. Two were issued by the Center for American Progress, headed by John Podesta, co-chair of President-elect Obama’s transition team, including an excellent strategy for green recovery by Bracken Hendricks and Benjamin Goldstein.
The Presidential Climate Action Plan (PCAP) was released during a standing-room only briefing on Capitol Hill, after two years of gestation at the University of Colorado. PCAP contains more than 180 proposals for President Obama and the next Congress, across 18 topics, ranging from natural resource stewardship to public health and from farm policy to zero-carbon buildings and transportation systems. All were designed for action during President Obama’s honeymoon period — the six months in which a new president traditionally sets the tone of his administration, between inauguration and the August congressional recess.
Published electronically with hyperlinks to the material behind the ideas, PCAP is the result of 22 months of work involving more than 200 people. Its proposals come from some of the nation’s leading experts on climate and energy policy, from original research, from members of the project’s prestigious national advisory committee and from present and former federal employees who understand the inside workings of government and whose desire to do something about climate has been pent up for the past eight years.
Among the several white papers and studies PCAP commissioned is a keep-it-simple plan for capping and trading carbon emissions, proposed by Yale economist Dr. Robert Repetto, and recommendations from international experts — including Alden Meyer at the Union of Concerned Scientists and Daphne Wysham of the Institute for Policy Studies — on what the president should do to make the United States an honest partner in international negotiations over climate action.
PCAP also includes policy roadmaps from the Alliance to Save Energy for changing America’s building practices and from the Center for Neighborhood Technology on retooling America’s transportation policies. It offers a detailed plan for reducing emissions from the world’s largest single energy user, the U.S. government.
Because we anticipated that the legislative branch might be sensitive about presidential abuse of power in the wake of the Bush Administration, the PCAP team commissioned an extensive analysis of the president’s authority to act on climate and energy without waiting for Congress. Scholars at the University of Colorado School of Law studied the 96 current statutes in the U.S. Code that specifically address climate change; many of our landmark environmental laws; 140 federal court cases and 370 executive orders going back to 1937. They analyzed about two-dozen executive orders proposed by PCAP and identified the specific statutes that give the president the authority to implement them.
The conclusion: President Obama will take office with plenty of power to jump-start federal leadership on climate and energy security and to begin America’s necessary transformation to a safe, sane and secure 21st century economy.
That conclusion doesn’t leave the nation’s lawmakers off the hook. PCAP contains 75 major action items for Congress. At the top of the legislative list is a two-part plan to mobilize the marketplace for the new economy:
- 1. A fair, workable, transparent and elegant scheme called “upstream cap and auction” to put a price on carbon, generating between $100 billion and $250 billion annually. Part of the money should be returned to the American people. The rest should be invested in clean energy research, modernization of America’s infrastructure, a training program for green jobs, and grants to states and localities for “energy and climate security plans”.
- 2. The repeal of federal subsidies for fossil fuels so that our tax dollars are no longer distorting market signals and paying to ruin the planet.
PCAP also recommends that President Obama do the following:
- Seek a bilateral agreement with China to reduce both nations’ greenhouse gas emissions and to collaborate on clean energy technology. A concrete commitment in 2009 between the world’s largest developing and developed nations would be an enormous breakthrough before the international community gathers in Copenhagen in December 2009 to figure out what to do after the Kyoto Protocol expires.
- Reinstitute specific carbon-cutting goals for the federal government (they were removed by the Bush Administration) and mobilize the game-changing procurement power of the government to buy green energy and products.
- Forbid political censorship of federal climate science and give government scientists the right of last review of their technical conclusions.
- Set ambitious new energy and climate goals for the country. We should reduce our greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2020; cut our oil imports in half by 2030; raise the CAFE standard to at least 50 mpg by 2025; achieve zero-net-carbon buildings by 2030; and improve the nation’s energy efficiency 50 percent by 2030.
- Begin regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Regulation will help convince the international community that we’re serious. More importantly, regulation will begin cutting emissions even before cap-and-auction takes effect, and curb emissions that a cap-and-auction system cannot.
- Order agencies to review the more than 200 financial assistance programs administered by the government and redirect them wherever possible to invest in the new economy rather than the old.
- Appoint climate experts rather than lobbyists to senior positions. We have provided President-elect Obama’s transition team a list of 250 senior jobs where we believe climate expertise is critical, along with the names of 200 experts who should be considered for appointments.
These investments in a new energy economy — including a market-based system to gradually raise the price of fossil fuels — won’t be easy in this time of economic hardship, but they are necessary. The cost of not acting is much higher and much more painful. President-elect Obama knows that. He also knows that while have promised him a rose garden, no one said there wouldn’t be thorns.
Part 2 examines how the next Congress will have to resolve some tough questions that past Congresses avoided.
— Bill B.