Of all the issues Barack Obama will address during the next two years, none is more important to his legacy than global climate change. Guest blogger William Becker offers his insight.
Finishing the job in Afghanistan and Iraq, reforming immigration policy and bringing the economy back to health will be high on the President’s priority list, as they should be. He’s expected to pay special attention to economic recovery in his State of the Union speech tomorrow.
However, unmitigated climate change would almost certainly sabotage the achievements on which he has invested so much time and political capital. Consider these impacts if climate change goes unchecked:
Immigration: Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton estimates that, depending on the severity of climate disruption, as many as 7 million residents of Mexico may immigrate to the United States over the next seven decades because of reduced food production. In other words, the United States is not immune to the problem of climate refugees. There goes immigration reform.
Health Care: Last September, the leaders of 18 national medical organizations and scores of state health officials wrote to the White House and Congress, warning that because of global warming “more Americans will be exposed to conditions that can result in illness and death due to respiratory illness, heat- and heat-related stress and disease carried by insects. Children, the elderly, the poor and people with serious health conditions will be most adversely affected.” There goes Obama’s historic attempt to control health care costs.
Terrorism: Defense and intelligence experts predict that climate change will destabilize many of the world’s most volatile regions, producing new recruiting grounds for terrorists. “Well before glaciers melt or sea levels rise, global climate change will spur instability on a global scale, which will exacerbate many of the traditional national security challenges with which we are grappling today, including terrorism,” according to experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. There go Obama’s efforts – and the enormous investment of American lives and treasure – to defeat terrorism.
A Healthy Economy: Just the hydrological impacts of climate change will result in net losses of $1.2 trillion to America’s GDP between 2010 and 2050, cost 7 million jobs and reduce real disposable personal income by $1.7 trillion, according to researchers at Sandia National Laboratory. We’re already bearing high collateral costs for fossil energy consumption. The National Research Council reports that burning fossil fuels for transportation and electricity resulted in hidden costs of $120 billion in 2005. There goes prosperity.
Energy Insecurity: We remain addicted to imported oil and vulnerable to the economic body blows inflicted by oil prices. Oil price shocks preceded and contributed to nearly all of our recessions since 1947. There goes economic stability.
Because climate change is progressing so rapidly toward tipping points and because it becomes more difficult and expensive to mitigate with each passing year, Obama may be the last U.S. president with the opportunity to head off its worst damages. Two or three decades from now, he is likely to be the leader history judges most responsible if people around the world are suffering from intense, diverse and irreversible stresses. If the world of 2030 is hard to imagine, look at all the extreme weather events and natural disasters in 2010 – the second-worst year on record – and multiply them by many times. Last year’s fires, floods, mudslides, blizzards and drought, some still underway in this new year, are evidence of what happens when weather variability and climate change combine.
The legacy issue – President Obama’s and ours – is the central theme of the report released today by the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP) as the Obama begins the second half of his first term. The report is the last of four PCAP has issued since January 2007, with hundreds of recommendations to the 2008 presidential candidates and the Obama Administration on climate and energy policy.
The new report urges President Obama to become “the great convener”, bringing together America’s best minds to propose solutions to our worst problems. One product should be a detailed policy roadmap to a clean energy economy. The roadmap would include ideas on how all levels of government and civil society can collaborate to expedite our transition to post-carbon, opportunity-rich society.
The report also recommends that President Obama:
- Take the case for climate action directly to the American people and put federal climate scientists on center state to substantiate the reality and seriousness of climate change;
- Develop national plans to deal with fresh water shortages, the conservation of ocean and coastal resources, and climate adaptation (already the topic of a presidential task force);
- Champion the restructuring of farm policy when it comes before Congress in 2012. We need a 50-year strategy, evaluated every five years, to deal with a variety of agricultural and rural issues, including water conservation, soil restoration, and the balance between the production of energy, food and fiber;
- Push for reform of transportation policy when Congress considers reauthorizing it this year, advocating that federal funding give highest priority to reducing the nation’s vehicle miles traveled;
- Go all out on Capitol Hill to defend EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, as well as the other powers past Congresses have given to the Executive Branch to protect America’s environment and natural capital;
- Make more use of Executive Agreements to reach deals with other nations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and developing clean energy technologies. Executive Agreements have the force of treaties but don’t require concurrence by two-thirds of the Senate;
- Aggressively use the power of federal procurement – civilian and military – to build markets for renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. On the civilian side, the government’s principal purchasing agent, the General Services Administration, procures nearly $70 billion each year in goods and services. Obama issued an executive order in 2009 that sets “green” standards for federal purchasing. Now he must make sure that GSA and other agencies have sufficient staff and resources to carry out the order;
- Use his authority to establish a “national security surcharge” on imported oil to help offset the costs of defending foreign supplies and shipping lanes. An analysis by Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress found a surcharge of $5 per barrel would raise $22 billion annually and increase gasoline prices by only 5 cents a gallon;
- Put substantially more pressure on Congress and the G-20 to phase out fossil energy subsidies as rapidly as economic stability permits and shift those resources to clean energy technologies;
- Push Congress to establish a floor on the price of oil to encourage more investment in renewable energy, and to ban the export of U.S. coal to other nations. America’s coal industry is profiting today by helping other nations produce carbon pollution;
- Ask the Federal Communications Commission to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. It’s unlikely that civil discourse will return in the United States while ideologues on both political extremes use public airwaves to spread inflammatory, one-sided and often inaccurate statements without balance or rebuttal.
There’s another critical point to be made about the President Obama’s climate leadership over the next two years. He has been reluctant to get out ahead of Congress on global warming. But the bluster from climate deniers in Congress is just that: bluster. The Administration’s responsibility is to carry out the current law of the land. I’ll write more about that in my next post.
– Bill Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP) at Natural Capitalism Solutions in Boulder, Colorado. Before launching PCAP in 2007, he worked on energy efficiency and renewable energy programs for 15 years at the U.S. Department of Energy. Among his other roles, he serves on the international Climate Change Task Force created and chaired by former Soviet President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mikhail Gorbachev.