Three Climate Change Actions For Obama’s Second Term

by Kevin Kennedy, via WRI Insights

With President Obama’s re-election, he has the opportunity to extend his legacy and take on big challenges. Climate change stands high on the list of issues that need to be addressed. As the President said in his acceptance speech:

“We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

In the final days of the campaign, Hurricane Sandy provided a wake-up call about the impacts of climate change. Recent extreme weather and climate events make clear that ignoring climate change will be costly in human, environmental, and economic terms for the United States and the world. How President Obama addresses climate and energy issues will help define his legacy.

As America recovers economically, we can–and must–also protect the environment and safeguard people’s health. The economy, environment, and public health are not in conflict, but complementary–they cannot be sustained over time without each other. America needs to get on a path that builds economic strength through investment and policy decisions that reward clean energy and enhance climate resilience.

3 Steps to a More Sustainable Future

In the last four years, America has made some progress to address climate change, particularly in working with auto companies to establish strong vehicle rules that will significantly reduce emissions and our reliance on foreign oil. However, much more needs to be done. Here are three key pieces of an agenda for the second Obama administration to address climate change:

1) Use the Bully Pulpit

Hurricane Sandy’s devastation provides the President with a teachable moment—if he takes the opportunity to show strong public leadership on climate change. The devastating extreme weather and climate events of recent years show that we are already experiencing the escalating effects of climate change. Heat waves, drought, and wildfires are becoming more severe; rain and snowfall events are becoming heavier and more intense; and sea-level rise is making us more vulnerable to catastrophic coastal flooding. We have every reason to believe that these impacts will continue to increase if action is not taken to cut harmful carbon pollution.

The President should use the bully pulpit to help Americans “connect the dots” and better understand the rising costs of inaction. The President needs to engage the country in an all-hands-on deck strategy to quickly implement solutions that reduce the pollution that causes climate change. He also needs to publicly explain to decision-makers–from the 113th Congress to governors to local officials–that they have a moral and fiscal responsibility to protect the country from climate change’s growing impacts and proactively reduce the dangerous emissions that exacerbate it.

2) Establish an American Plan for Climate Action

President Obama should lay out a clear plan for how the United States can significantly reduce carbon pollution in the coming decades, whether through placing a national price on carbon or through a mix of measures that achieve reductions in different economic sectors. For example, electricity generation is responsible for 34 percent of the carbon pollution in the country today and provides one of the best opportunities for reducing emissions. The President has previously called for Congress to enact a Clean Energy Standard (CES), which could point the way to a cleaner, low-carbon electric system in the United States. The EPA is poised to use its existing authority under the Clean Air Act (CAA) to set standards that the country’s electricity suppliers will use to guide their investment and operational decisions for years to come. Sending clear, strong signals that electricity will need to shift to cleaner sources over the coming decades–whether through new CES legislation or CAA rules–is critical for the country’s long-term human, environmental, and economic health.

3) Reduce Emissions of Other Potent Greenhouse Gases

The Obama administration has been working to craft an international agreement to reduce emissions from hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are extremely potent greenhouse gases whose use is expected to increase dramatically in years to come without action now. According to EPA projections, HFC emissions are expected to more-than-double by 2035. Dealing with these gases globally is important, but the administration can and should take action on HFCs now through existing laws.

The United States has also seen a short-term decline in energy-related CO2 emissions, in large part because of the boom in natural gas production. This gain comes with an asterisk, though – methane (the primary gas in natural gas) is a potent greenhouse gas that is frequently released into the atmosphere throughout the natural gas lifecycle. Recent actions by the administration will help limit the amount of methane released during the production of gas from shale formations, but more can be done to reduce methane leakage from natural gas systems throughout the country.

Beyond domestic actions, the Obama administration should reconsider its international strategy, prioritizing solutions that would keep global average temperature rise below 2 degrees C. Some of the key issues to consider include how to implement an ambitious and equitable international agreement by 2015, what the U.S. global energy strategy should be, and how America can work with China to address climate change.

Climate science is clear: We’re running out of time to prevent global warming’s most severe impacts. With the campaign behind him, it’s time for President Obama to demonstrate his commitment to leading the country on a sustainable, low-carbon path to economic prosperity.

Kevin Kennedy is Director of the U.S. Climate Initiative in the Climate and Energy Program. This piece was originally published at WRI Insights and was reprinted with permission.

23 Responses to Three Climate Change Actions For Obama’s Second Term

  1. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Excellent Article. In the later part of his Election Campaign,President Barack Obama did speak about the issue of Climate Change. It is hoped he will give top priority to this.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  2. Paul Klinkman says:

    There are lots of other things that will reduce methane and CO2 emissions.

    If a forest dies (and many of them are dying or dead now!), face up to the problem. Cut fire lanes so that the whole forest doesn’t go up in a megafire. Take any easily accessible carbon (dead trees) and either use or sequester the wood. Replant with a mix of hardier species. Note that a clearcut and bulldozing job isn’t ecologically sound. Exception: the forests around Chernobyl should probably be robotically bulldozed into the soil, as they are loaded with plutonium and when they burn we’ll get another disaster.

    We need more thought as to which ecological niches absorb carbon into the earth permanently. If we have more beavers, perhaps we have more peat bogs absorbing carbon permanently.

    If we have lots of simple geoengineering machines that change their tiny section of the planet’s albedo without oddball chemicals, climate change is mitigated. I’d like to build such a simple machine, but there is zero interest nationally, including from the climate change community. Sometimes I wonder if the good guys are almost as ostrich-like as the climate change deniers. (Apologies to real ostriches, who are just temporarily hunting for food below ground level.)

  3. “The United States has also seen a short-term decline in energy-related CO2 emissions, in large part because of the boom in natural gas production. This gain comes with an asterisk, though – methane (the primary gas in natural gas) is a potent greenhouse gas that is frequently released into the atmosphere throughout the natural gas lifecycle.”

    This appears to be another propagation of the faulty meme sprouted from fudgey PR around a US EIA report earlier this year.

    The actual EIA report shows a decrease in CO2 emissions from energy _consumption_, not related to energy overall. The distinction is significant enough that it’s likely the overall energy-related carbon equivalent emissions actually increased, not decreased.

  4. Those prescriptions for reinforcing forest carbon sequestration are bounded as much in forest mythology as forest science. It’s both more subtle and more complicated than these recipe items.

    We recently addressed a wide swath of contemporary forest mythology in ArchitectureWeek:

    The Corruption of Woof

  5. “Wood” of course, not “woof”. :-)

  6. Aren’t you missing the most important action?

    Have the EPA regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants in addition to its current regulations on new power plants.

    That might be enough to push congress to support a cap-and-trade plan as a better market-based alternative to regulation.

  7. BillD says:

    The pre-electin policy was ‘focus on clean energy and energy independence without mentioning climate change. I agree that we now need nearly the opposite strategy of using the bully pulpit to inform and energyize the public. Some of that could be done by giving Chu and Lubchenko the task of speaking out and organizing scientists to speak out. If the general public really understood the basis for the scientific consensus and the depth of concern of real scientists, I think that we could see some real actions, maybe even before climate change becomes an issue in the mid-term elections.

  8. Paul Klinkman says:

    I’ve had the same problem. There’s no editing capability when you make a goof.

    Um, this article appears to be about maximizing the timber industry’s profits. “It’s both more subtle and more complicated than these recipe items.”

  9. ThisOldMan says:

    The bottom line is that we need a global price on carbon (and international regulations on other GHGs similar to the Montreal accord) if we are to stop global warming. All the other measures proposed in this article are but a prelude to that. See also

  10. fj says:

    Yes, we are running out of time & the level of urgency must be much higher than even this artcle.

  11. fj says:

    In a rational world the common wisdom would be that we must reduce emissions to near zero in 5 years while rapidly restoring and Obama must answer to why he is not doing this.

  12. fj says:

    . . .rapidly restoring the environment . . .

  13. Matt says:

    Natural gas is not a bridge fuel! Pursuing natural gas delays the transition that must start now, to renewable energy. Current Fracking practices are as dirty as burning coal.Why would we build new gas fired power plants and pipelines? The majority of the projected new natural gas is slated to be exported for profit not used domestically.Fracking uses huge amounts of our most precious resource,water!Fracking is also responsible for contaminating our drinking water. After Fracking,the contaminated water is reclaimed.That contaminated water is trucked off to a disposal well and pumped back into the ground.Every well head used to Frack and dispose of Fracked water is made of concrete.Concrete will crack, not might crack. Each well head must be inspected and maintained forever!or it will leak!

  14. Merrelyn Emery says:

    The other thing that never seems to get mentioned is the pretty widespread habit of sheer wastefulness, of electricity, water and food. Severely reduced supply and increased costs might be the easiest answers, ME

  15. Barrie says:

    Great article. A key thing that the US should now consider is signing Kyoto. By refusing to sign up to the only global treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the US gives countries like China, Japan, Canada and Russia the perfect excuse to ignore it. When the US signs, I believe there will be a huge groundswell of international support for the treaty that will force China’s hand.

    Reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be the number one priority of any Government interested in a future for their country.

  16. afayol says:

    please Use the Bully Pulpit to bully OBAMA!!!!

    I drive with with PVs (1000Wp) on my EV:

    and YOU: when will you drive by the sun ?

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Rin-Tin-Tin on the take?

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In Australia the Rightwing MSM is infested with dead souls gloating about the fracked gas ‘bonanza’ in the USA, and demanding an end to renewables as economically damaging. The renewable energy target here is currently being subjected to ferocious attack, and the Murdoch sewer in particular (but all business media as well) are incessant in their demands to destroy all ‘green tape’ ie all environmental law. Climate derangement mostly goes unmentioned, or perhaps is sneered at in ritualistic fashion. No number of Sandys, droughts or flooding deluges will ever get these brainless toads to change their tunes.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    That will only harm the poor, while the rich parasites go on partying like its 1999.

  20. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I meant by necessity as in the recent drought here when those with a clean car were treated as pariahs, ME

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I reckon that it looks like the drought is re-emerging. Things hereabouts are very dry. My shoes are very dusty.