On Climate Change, Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

by Bill Becker

Among political insiders in Washington, the conventional wisdom is that action on global climate change is a dead issue for the foreseeable future. But that need not, and should not, be the case

The atmospheric thermostat isn’t on hold while we wait for a better political moment.  And outside the beltway where voters are dealing with drought, floods, fires and heat waves – and soon, higher food prices — the right political moment may already have arrived. What remains is for our current and prospective elected leaders to seize it.

That might not be as difficult as some think. In a poll last March by George Mason University and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 82 percent of respondents said they had personally experienced one or more extreme weather events during the previous year; more than one in three Americans said they had been personally harmed by extreme weather. A Gallup poll the same month found that 77 percent of Americans say they are “personally worried” about global warming. The well-documented risk is that these impacts will grow much more severe if we don’t address them.

At this point in the campaign, neither Gov. Romney nor President Obama has said much about the issue. It may be an uncomfortable topic for them. A year ago, Gov. Romney acknowledged anthropogenic global warming and said “it’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases.”

Several months later, he flip-flopped without apology. In the only mention of the climate issue on his official campaign website, he supports taking away EPA’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. Romney’s site lays out his positions on 24 issues, but environment is not among them.

On the closely related issue of energy policy, Gov. Romney boasts that “the United States is blessed with a cornucopia of carbon-based energy resources” – the resources most responsible for anthropogenic global warming. He decries the federal government’s support for technologies such as wind and solar, but mentions nothing about subsidies to oil, coal, gas or nuclear power. He wants to restrict government support for renewable energy to basic research, in effect ending the government’s efforts to expedite the commercialization of technologies we need for a clean energy technology.

President Obama has been criticized for not doing enough in his first term. As president-elect in 2008, he said “now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all”, and his presidency would “mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change”. However, he failed to throw the full weight of his presidency behind the cap-and-trade bill that eventually died with a whimper in Congress in 2010.

With all due respect, the central theme of the President’s energy strategy – “All of the Above” – is a cop-out. It’s what politicians say when they want to make everyone happy, in this case the well-endowed fossil energy industries. The reality is that America needs to make some very tough choices about energy in the next four years, in favor of those that don’t pollute.

It would be profoundly irresponsible for the candidates to avoid specific commitments on mitigating climate change, and profoundly irresponsible for the media and voters to let them. Few people in the United States, in red states or blue, are escaping the destructive weather we’ve seen in recent years – weather that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists say will be more likely and more extreme in the years ahead.

To encourage a direct and detailed discussion of global warming, the Presidential Climate Action Project is being revived this year.  We are offering to consult with each of the presidential candidates and their policy staffs on how to address global warming in ways that are consistent with conservative, moderate and liberal values.

During the 2008 campaign and the first two years of the Obama Administration, PCAP provided all of the presidential candidates and the White House with volumes of information on how Congress and the president could reform federal policies and programs to deal with the emerging realities of global warming.

Anticipating an uncooperative Congress, our primary focus was what the president could do unilaterally by exercising his or her executive authority. While the Obama Administration could have been more aggressive in pushing cap-and-trade legislation, it has used its authorities in a variety of ways to address climate change, ranging from executive orders to improve the environmental practices of the federal government and to protect the integrity of its climate research, to an historic increase in vehicle efficiency standards and EPA’s decision to go forward with the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Political insiders argue – and it’s true — that climate change doesn’t appear on the list of the voters’ top concerns. The list is dominated by the economy, along with the budget deficit, health care and the environment in general. But it doesn’t take a climate scientist to see that our changing weather has a significant impact on each of those issues. Rising food prices aren’t going to help the families trying to make ends meet. Extreme weather doesn’t help bring down budget deficits, with the government’s costs going up for disaster assistance and taxpayer-supported flood and crop insurance.

As Nicholas Stern and others have warned for a long time, addressing climate change now is far cheaper than trying to address it later, when the impacts have grown worse, some beyond mitigation. Arguing that the economy should eclipse the more insidious problem of global warming is like trying to fix the furnace while the house is burning down.

As for public health, a peer-reviewed study by the Natural Resources Defense Council predicts that in America’s 40 largest cities, an additional 33,000 people will die from heat-related causes alone over the next four decades if climate change goes unabated. That doesn’t count heat-related illness, injuries from natural disasters, or health problems related to air pollution.

The bottom line is this: We should not accept political paralysis on a problem as devastating and irreversible as global climate change, and we should not allow national candidates to ignore the issue during the 2012 campaign. If we expect nothing from our leaders, that is exactly what we’ll get.

Part 2:

With Congress paralyzed late last year, President Barack Obama decided to assert his authority more aggressively on a number of issues: “If Congress refuses to act, I’ve said that I’ll continue to do everything in my power to act without them.” He coined a slogan: “We Can’t Wait”.

Global climate change certainly falls into the “we can’t wait” category. It’s a very bad influence on things voters care about – a healthy economy, affordable food, protection from natural disasters, lower taxes, control of federal spending, and the safety of the nation’s infrastructure, to name a few. That should lift global warming to the top of the candidates’ platforms and the next president’s agenda.

So, when the first presidential debate takes place on Oct. 3 in Denver with a focus on domestic issues, somebody should ask the candidates this question:

Top climate experts are saying that global climate change will increase the likelihood we’ll see much more extreme weather in the future, even more severe than the droughts, floods, wildfires and heat waves we’re seeing today. Let’s assume that the Congress remains deadlocked next year on the climate issue. What will you do as president to address the risk that these experts are correct?

If either candidate answers that climate science is not sufficiently certain to justify presidential intervention, the moderator should reject that answer. Scientists will continue working on the science; the relevant question for the president and Congress is how the federal government will help the nation reduce and prepare for the risks that global warming is upon us and likely to grow much worse.

If either candidate responds that the president is relatively powerless and the question should be directed to Congress, then it will be time to dust off the recommendations some of us advocated four years ago about what a president can do. With apologies to those who have read these before, here is a reprise of the analysis we offered to the candidates in 2008:

It is true that the Constitution gives the Executive Branch relatively little authority compared to Congress, which makes the nation’s laws and controls the government’s purse strings. The president is not without tools, however. They include executive orders; directives and memoranda; the veto; signing statements; National Security Directives; the authority to call Congress into special session; the ability to enter into Executive Agreements with other nations without the advice and consent of the Senate; the president’s role as Commander in Chief and Chief and his job as Chief Executive of the nation’s largest institution, plus some extraordinary powers the president can use during national emergencies.  And, of course, there’s the power of the bully pulpit.

In addition, past Congresses have delegated specific powers to the president, including many related to protecting the environment and enhancing our energy security.  In a legal analysis the Presidential Climate Action Project commissioned during the last campaign, the Center for Energy and Environmental Security at the University of Colorado School of Law (CEES) found that presidents issued 370 executive orders related to energy and the environmental from 1937 through 2006, based on 112 statutory authorities put into the U.S. Code by past Congresses.

Presidents are on safest ground when their actions are based on a clear statutory authorization.  When the president appears to overstep his statutory authority, he can be challenged in the courts. However, CEES found:

When it comes to analyzing presidential claims of statutory authorization…the courts have not yet settled on a clear set of rules for the analysis…(but) the most common theme is for the courts to show deference to a president’s interpretation of statutes…Overall, presidents have a history of faring well when their executive orders are challenged in court.

A weakness of one of the president’s most common tools – executive orders — is that they can be undone by Congress or future presidents. A future president can simply issue a new order that makes his predecessor’s obsolete.  A hostile Congress can attempt to revoke some of the Executive Branch’s powers, as the House tried to do last year when it voted to take away EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.  But as we’ve seen in the Senate, procedural rules can be used to block that kind of retaliation, and so could strong public support for executive action if the next president clearly explains to the American people why it is necessary.

A “We Can’t Wait” president will push the envelope on executive authority. It has been done before. To protect the nation’s natural resources, President Theodore Roosevelt pushed presidential authority beyond the boundaries set by his predecessors and sometimes beyond specific statutory authorization. He believed he was duty-bound to do so. In his words:

I did and caused to be done many things not previously done by the President and the heads of departments. I did not usurp power but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power. In other words, I acted for the common well being of all our people whenever and in whatever measure was necessary, unless prevented by a direct constitutional or legislative prohibition.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt stretched the boundaries even farther. To deal with World War II and the Great Depression, he sometimes took action first and asked Congress for permission after the fact. According to the CEES:

To make great change, a president can go to the broader end of the spectrum. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration exemplifies the most expansive philosophy regarding use of executive authority…. Roosevelt aggressively sought expansion of executive authority by obtaining additional statutory delegations and actively used statutory delegations as authority for executive action to “attack” economic crisis and military foes. The success of his administration was to some extent circumstantial, due to a supportive Congress, popularity with the people, and historical situations that instilled in the nation a sense of urgency. However, it is not improbable that one or more of these circumstances would again present themselves, especially in light of recent scientific findings regarding the implications of climate change and the growing consensus as to the urgency of the problem (emphasis mine).

The Justice Department and the president’s judicial appointments may also influence energy and climate policy in the years just ahead.  The U.S. Supreme Court has already substantiated EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases are a danger to public health and welfare has since been upheld by lower courts.

Our litigious citizens now are testing a variety of additional legal issues, recently summarized by the Congressional Research Service. Can the Endangered Species Act be used to restrict greenhouse gas emissions based on evidence that climate change degrades critical habitat? When should carbon emissions be addressed in Environmental Impact Statements? What about the liability, property rights and regulatory issues that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) would trigger? Can they be resolved? Or are they so difficult that we’re wasting taxpayers’ money by subsidizing CCS?

Will federal insurance programs have to cover damages caused by climate change? If so, how will we handle the increased cost to taxpayers? Can electric utilities be forced to pay damages to citizens and communities because they knowingly emitted carbon pollution that contributes to climate change?

What impact will climate-induced water scarcity have on the volatile subject of water rights? Can governments be ruled negligent if they fail to avert the harmful impacts of climate change, such as flooding and sea level rise? How will we treat people who try to enter the United States from Mexico and other countries as “climate refugees”? Has climate change risen to the level of a national emergency? If so, what exactly are the president’s “extraordinary powers”?

And again, the overarching question: If Congress cannot or will not deal with the rising risks and evident dangers of global warming, will the president? It’s a very good question. We should insist that Gov. Romney and President Obama answer it.

Bill Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project. The project’s specific policy recommendations to the 44th President and Congress are posted on its website.

14 Responses to On Climate Change, Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

  1. Ozonator says:

    If global warming (AGW) is a hoax, then the following is free “fresh air” from the Evil Inhofes and the rest of the extremist Republicans and Christians. With condolences, “Explosion sparks large fire at west Tulsa refinery” (By ZACK STOYCOFF – Tulsa World;, 8/2/12).

  2. Leif says:

    Conventional wisdom declared the Keystone XL pipeline a “Done Deal,” we win all wars, tax breaks for the rich stimulate the economy, Wall Street needs less oversight… Need I go on? ” Conventional wisdom sucks for the most part. Go People… Demand a seat at the TABLE. Humanity deserves nothing less.

  3. Paul Klinkman says:

    Given a dumb and dumber presidential election, the best remaining solution is to work for the surprisingly rare congressional races where one candidate is being honest.

    Long range, go out and talk with every voter outside the beltway. Tell all the mothers and fathers, “If you cheat everyone’s grandkids, your own kids won’t respect you as much. What do you want to be in their eyes? A thief?”

  4. M Tucker says:

    “A Gallup poll the same month found that 77 percent of Americans say they are “personally worried” about global warming.”

    Yeah, but they will still vote for denier candidates. The poll did not question them on if they would not vote for a candidate who denies the science. I know that 77% of the voters are not all Democrats. The reality is that the Democrats are very likely to lose the majority in the Senate this year. The reality is that President Obama will have a very tough race. The reality is that he will have to win some battleground coal and oil states. The reality is that many believe President Obama hates coal and oil jobs and wants to end them no matter what he says about all of the above. That is why the administration is selling coal leases, promoting coal exports, and will very likely approve Keystone. He wants to try to counter their fears by pointing to his obvious support.

    You need to forget Romney. The man is without principle. The man is a liar. He is the one that anyone caught lying on a job resume can point to for justification. He is a political chameleon. He will change to match the current color of the Republican Party and that color ain’t green. He will never support big government action to limit GHG. He will never support government subsidies for solar and wind. That might hurt his chances in a few battleground states benefitting President Obama.

    President Obama is fighting hard against the “anyone but Obama” sentiment. That battle is most obvious in those battleground states and that battle is about jobs. The battle depends on coal, oil, as-well-as wind and perhaps solar jobs. I haven’t heard anyone in Colorado calling for climate legislation. So, he will continue to say “all of the above.” He will attack Republican opposition to wind and solar AND defend his support for creating coal and oil jobs. And we will shy away from mentioning climate change. Not only does he want to win he would like to help keep the Senate in Democratic hands. You want Congress to try to pass some kind of climate bill? Not possible with Republican control of both houses and with a Republican like Romney taking orders from Ryan, Cantor, McConnell, Rove, and Norquist.

  5. Mark Shapiro says:

    Mr. Becker, thanks for the post. But when you say,
    ““the central theme of the President’s energy strategy – “All of the Above” – is a cop-out”,

    remember two things —

    1) The coal, oil, and gas industries are slightly more powerful than you, me, and ClimateProgress all together; and
    2) Romney’s policy is stark: all of the above EXCEPT renewables and efficiency.

    Criticize the President all you want. Just remember that he is fighting a rearguard action here.

  6. Mark Shapiro says:

    Regarding your question:

    “Can governments be ruled negligent if they fail to avert the harmful impacts . . .”

    The short answer is “no”.

    And much worse than the US worrying about climate refugees from Mexico, if Joe Romm is right about coming dust-bowlification, then Canada should worry about climate refugees from the US. They will be very well armed . . .

  7. Leif says:

    Well aware of that Mark, also aware that he is not “fighting” very hard or convincingly, given he has all the science and ethics on his side.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Hell, you’ve just gotta admire the way that the Rethuglicans, after seeing all their favourite policies end in utter, predicted, failure, simply pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and demand more and more of the same. When you get right down to it, this isn’t just ‘the courage of their convictions’, it’s the suicidal insanity of their refusal to acknowledge reality. You can teach a planarian worm to find its way through a maze, by trial and error, but you cannot educate the ineducable Right. When the ship’s captain goes bonkers and sails straight into danger, the crew are expected to mutiny. How much closer to mass extinction must we allow these crazed fools drag us before we take over the ship?

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’d vote Green. There’s a slightly less than 1% chance that you’ll start something. Voting for the Demopublicans is simply acquiescing in certain destruction by joining a cynical charade. Believe me, it’s the same in Australia.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    So that’s what all the drones are really for.

  11. Bill Becker says:

    Mark, your point about the power of the carbon energy industries is well taken. So is your point that Obama’s “All of the Above” is better than Romney’s “Drill, Suck & Burn” policy. My position is that President Obama should tell the truth about energy policy, if he’s serious about making the transition to sustainable low-carbon resources. In my view, the “truth” looks like this: Reject the development of unconventional fuels such as liquids from coal, and oil from shale and tar sands, because we can’t afford their emissions, their water consumption or their environmental and health costs. Second, end federal subsidies for carbon capture and sequestration, putting the R&D burden on the industries that want the technology. The fossil energy industries are rich enough to pay for the research themselves. Third, develop a national roadmap to the clean energy economy that defines off-ramps for coal and oil, and on-ramps for low-carbon renewables. In other words, the roadmap would identify the national timetable for phasing out fossil energy as rapidly and to the lowest level we can, while phasing in renewables and efficiency. This would give industries some sense, at least, of how they should anticipate the changing energy market. Next, we’d repeal all tax subsides for coal, oil and gas production, except those that are genuinely necessary for national security, and shift to stable subsidies for renewables on a timetable that phases out the subsidies by 2025. The goal would be to end all energy producer subsidies. But we’d help the critical emerging clean energy industries to get on their feet before we pull their supports. In regard to energy consumption, our goal should be a significant reduction by mid-century, coupled with a significant increase in the productive work we get from the energy we use. According to ACEEE, we are so inefficient that we convert only about 13% of the energy we consume into productive use. We plan to flesh out ideas like these in our next Presidential Climate Action Plan.

  12. Aussie John says:

    On the matter of climate change world politics has been effectively hijacked and corrupted by powerful corporations. They must ensure we continue down the road of unlimited corporate growth, otherwise the system will collapse. Denial of anthropogenic climate change is a fundamental cornerstone of promoted policies that allow continued unbridled growth.

    There are some honest politicians with a social conscience that can read and understand the overwhelming scientific data that is available that warns us of the looming environmental disaster; there are others who are just parasites on their nation and succumb to base human greed; they see it as a way for personal gain and power.
    Populist “would be” leaders, together with certain media outlets irresponsibly broadcast highly effective ‘tobacco industry like’ messages of doubt, denigrating and misrepresenting scientific facts to achieve their unholy objectives. These populists are very intelligent people, surely they also can read and understand the science- but they lack the fortitude and moral integrity to act in the interests of humanity.

    And what’s the result of this cynical wilful sabotage of humanities future? – perhaps another few years of “business as usual” while space ship Earth’s life support is condemned to unstoppable catastrophic failure.
    As is commonly said, “Follow the money”. They deny and confuse because of the not so subtle corrupting enticements of big corporates to accommodate their basic greed for continuation of their easy profits at the cost of future generation’s wellbeing.
    Remember Hitler? … He didn’t personally run the vile extermination programs; his trusted sycophantic minions did his dirty deeds.
    How long can people sit back and watch while community leaders misrepresent and obfuscate the reality of solid scientific data to perpetuate climate change inaction?
    Science has gathered a myriad of data, the quality and extent of this resource is such that the world has never had before. Yet educated intelligent people deny it!
    The war we must wage to avert the disastrous effects climate change is more important than all the previous wars that the human race has waged over previous millenniums.

    The stakes being gambled with are billions of human lives, and untold billions of other lives in the world of nature.
    Why don’t people understand that???

  13. Brian R Smith says:

    Bill, thanks for this perspective on how the President could effectively intervene in this crisis and assert authority as did the Roosevelts in their time. It gives analytical hope, but leads back to the question: what will it take (since the climate crisis itself is not enough) to force and/or encourage the President into leadership, to use the bully pulpit.

    Many authors have emphasized, as you have here, that realizing progress critically revolves on whether the public is truthfully informed and then engaged.

    You mention the possibility of “strong public support for executive action IF the next president clearly explains to the American people why it is necessary”. True, but this leaves the building of strong public support in the hands of the President. Catch-22.

    You are possibly right to hope that questions will be asked during the national debates. But there again we’re coming in on a wing & a prayer, with little evidence for that happening. And if a questioner does throw a wrench into both parties plans to avoid climate and global meltdown, can we expect useful answers? Instead, off the cuff “debate” on climate might add more confusion & minimize the issues compared with competing issues. He said/He said in front of 100m voters isn’t our best shot.

    Shawn Otto & friends’ Science Debate concept similarly would force candidates to take positions in a national forum, but the candidates have simply declined, as they did in 2008.

    Assuming a moment that educating and motivating the public is the key to creating political will for this (in contrast to waiting for elite action), would you be an advocate for stepped up strategy in the climate movement to coordinate an independent media-based national campaign?

    Specifically, would you support a grand alliance approach by the climate community to bring scientists, policy advocates, community activists, business leaders, doners, voters…everybody…into the task of addressing public awareness and action on climate?

  14. The single lesson we should learn from Republicans is persistence. Climate change champions should be putting forward cc legislation at every possible opportunity. We need to turn it into a central issue.