As President Obama embarks on his second term, many Americans are hoping that the extreme weather of 2012 will mark a sea change and finally goad him into making meaningful efforts to deal with climate change.
During his first term, Obama disappointingly failed to take much significant action against climate change, but in his second inaugural speech, he said, ”We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” This is real cause for hope.
According to many economists, public officials, scientists and environmentalists, the best strategy to fight climate change is a carbon tax, which would tax carbon emissions then return the money to taxpayers through a dividend check or a tax credit. With the House of Representatives still controlled by Republicans, however, a carbon tax is politically unfeasible and a White House spokesman has announced, “The administration has not proposed nor is planning to propose a carbon tax.”
So what other actions can President Obama take to fight climate change? I asked some experts from the Earth Institute and affiliated centers to weigh in on what Obama can and should do.
Special Research Scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
I disagree with the notion that there should be no carbon tax (or at least cap and trade), albeit as long as the House of Representatives has a pro-carbon majority it remains a long-term goal. The short-term priorities are many: provide incentives for smart electric grids across the nation that allow cogeneration to feed into the grid; provide further incentives for energy efficiency, non-fossil power generation (wind, photo-voltaic) and for the phase-out of coal fired plants; and place more emphasis on waste reduction and waste transformation into energy (instead of allowing methane to leak from landfills).
Another measure to take is strengthening the role of the Environmental Protection Agency within the executive branch, i.e. appoint a strong EPA leader, and take his or her advice seriously, rather than sidelining the agency in many important executive decisions. On climate change adaptation, President Obama needs to see to it that the FEMA National Flood Insurance Program will be fundamentally overhauled to make its rates, flood insurance rate maps and regulations fully compatible with actual flood risks. This includes making sure that coastal flood zone maps take into account sea level rise at least 50 years into the future.
James E. Hansen
Director, Goddard Institute for Space Studies
Obama should collect a fee from fossil fuel companies in proportion to the amount of carbon in the fuel (oil, gas, coal). This fee should gradually rise over time. One hundred percent of the money collected should be distributed to legal adult residents. People using less fossil fuel than average would receive more in their dividend than they pay via increased prices. This is called fee-and-dividend or clean energy credit. It provides a great incentive to reduce fossil fuel use and encourages business people and entrepreneurs to develop no-carbon and low-carbon energies. It is not a tax—not one dime goes to the government.
Co-director, Center for Research on Environmental Decisions
Obama should establish a system to measure U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses like methane and nitrous oxide, and to measure carbon sinks as well. This would be less controversial than some other steps, and yet would be important from a policy perspective (we can’t manage something that we haven’t measured). Having numbers will allow people to compare years and assess trends, to compare sources and see where improvements are needed. Numbers will help policy-makers make decisions, and help the public become engaged with the issue, a necessary step to advancing the policy process.
Director, Center for Climate Change Law
One important thing the Obama administration can do to fight climate change—in addition to continuing its use of the many available tools under the Clean Air Act—is to make energy efficiency a central part of governmental decision-making. Whenever the government is considering undertaking, financing or permitting the construction of a building, infrastructure or other facilities, it should look closely at whether the direct and indirect energy consumption of the project can be reduced. Whenever the government considers other relevant policies, such as the procurement of equipment, goods and services, the management of land, the regulation of resources, and many others, energy efficiency should be a major factor. The National Environmental Policy Act and other laws provide ample tools for doing this.
Director, International Research Institute for Climate and Society
Most of the devastating impacts that the U.S. has experienced over the years—including the last two—have been delivered through extreme weather events and year-to-year climate variability. It is true that climate change could make these worse, and we may be seeing evidence of that already (2012 was the hottest year on record for the U.S.). However, better resilience and preparation of communities and the nation as a whole requires good information for early warning and early action on climate variability—as much or more than for long-term climate change. This requires sustained adequate observing networks, state-of-the-art models for weather and climate prediction, reliable forecast systems that can translate model predictions into relevant warnings and call for action, and an informed public that can understand the information and act on it.
Thus, in addition to the science, we need clear communication, mechanisms that foster communication between a wide range of communities, and infrastructure that can support the sharing of information, data and experience. Our government would do well to invest in making sure the country is adequately informed and prepared for the risks and opportunities of climate change that lie ahead.
Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics, The Earth Institute
Rejecting a carbon tax strikes me as an odd move, given that it is the most efficient way of addressing climate change, and raises revenue in the bargain. We shouldn’t think of a carbon tax in isolation, but as part of a larger package of reform, to be combined with other measures for addressing climate change, especially research and development, and other measures for improving the efficiency of the economy, such as reducing the effective marginal tax rate at the lower end of the income range.
The U.S. should adopt policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions on its own. But ultimately only global emissions matter, and U.S. policy will be many times more effective if it can leverage emission reductions in other countries. International climate negotiations have failed, but that is only because we have taken the wrong approach. We need to break this problem up into manageable pieces.
The U.S. should continue to press for a new agreement on limiting the emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), possibly under an amendment to the Montreal Protocol. We should negotiate new agreements on standards for international airline travel under the International Civil Aviation Organization and for international maritime transport under the International Maritime Organization. We should negotiate new standards agreements for critical sectors, such as steel and aluminum, backed up (like all the other agreements mentioned before) by the credible threat to restrict trade.
The aim should be to stimulate innovation and create a new level playing field for the global economy. If we don’t do this, if we continue to negotiate as we have for the past 20 years, we will get the same result—no progress
Climate change and its extreme weather effects will continue to impact our country and the world in the future. Our government needs to act promptly and effectively to help the nation adapt to these conditions and to ward off the even more severe impacts the future will bring if we do not control our greenhouse gas emissions.
For the latest information on how climate change is affecting the U.S., the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s new draft National Climate Assessment has just been released for public review. Integrating scientific information from numerous sources and sectors, it reports to the President, Congress and the nation on already observed changes, the current status of the climate, and anticipated trends for the future—for all regions of the country. Individuals and groups may examine the current version of the report and provide comments aimed at improving it until April 12.