02 Feb 2009: Opinion

What Obama Must Do
on the Road to Copenhagen

If crucial climate negotiations later this year in Copenhagen are to have any chance of success, the U.S. must take the lead. To do that, President Obama needs to act boldly in the coming months.

by michael northrop and david sassoon

President Obama will face one of the most important moments of his presidency this year on Dec. 18, and he needs his entire cabinet to help him prepare for it over the next 11 months. Dec. 18 is the final day of the global climate meetings in Copenhagen, a day that will signify whether the world community has finally mustered the will to rein in soaring greenhouse gas emissions. That fixed date, combined with escalating scientific urgency and unparalleled political opportunity, make 2009 the do-or-die year for comprehensive federal climate action.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says that emissions must be stabilized by 2015 and in decline by 2020. Science, in its rightful place, can tolerate no further delay. For Obama, the political winds at his back are now as favorable as they will ever be. He is in a position to seize 2009 and do three things to meet the climate challenge: properly educate the American public about climate change and the need for immediate action; exercise the full might of his executive powers and regulatory discretion under the Clean Air Act to jump-start action; and spend freely from his enormous store of political capital to lead the government to enact comprehensive federal climate legislation. If he does, the United States will reclaim the mantle of global leadership when it takes its seat in Copenhagen.

After eight years of U.S. inaction on climate change, American leadership offers the only hope of success. Even if President Obama himself decides to
After eight years of U.S. inaction on climate change, American leadership offers the only hope of success.
attend the talks — and hopefully he will — his mission will fail unless he carries with him a year’s worth of demonstrated results to lend weight and credibility to the promise he made in his inaugural address to “roll back the specter of a warming planet.” In Copenhagen, his inspiring oratory alone will not be sufficient; he must demonstrate how science has been restored “to its rightful place” in America in strong climate regulation and law.

For almost a decade, Americans have been purposefully led astray about the reality of global warming and about the positive relationship that exists between sustainable economic prosperity and environmental stewardship. The new president must use the bully pulpit of his office to provide quick and remedial education.

Obama has well chosen his scientific team in John Holdren, the White House science adviser; Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and he should empower them and other government scientists to speak loudly, unequivocally, and frequently to the American public about the true science of climate change and the urgency of our present circumstances. The latest science only underscores the need for immediate action, given the acceleration of global ice melt, extreme weather events, dangerous feedback loops, and potentially irreversible changes.

The president must also instruct his cabinet to clarify the impact of global climate change on each of their respective portfolios. Global warming has been crammed into a “green” box for the sake of political expediency. Instead, it must be appreciated for its cross-cutting immensity — it is fundamental to national security, global commerce, economic recovery, energy security, public health and safety, agricultural policy, land-use planning, and environmental protection.

Obama must also make a prime-time, televised address to the nation about the climate crisis and the need for immediate action and U.S. global leadership. Such a speech would send a clear signal to the American public and the political establishment and prepare them to come together with the nations of the world in Copenhagen to meet this grave challenge.

Simultaneously, the president must travel to Copenhagen with real regulatory and legislative achievements. Signs are good that Obama genuinely means business. He is talking frequently about energy and
The president must travel to Copenhagen with real regulatory and legislative achievements.
climate change, and his economic recovery package makes important commitments toward green jobs, clean energy, and energy efficiency — $54 billion worth. This is more than a third of the $150 billion he promised over the next 10 years for clean energy investments, so if the package survives its passage through Congress, he will be ahead of schedule on that score. By itself, though, this investment inside a trillion dollar package merely colors the economic recovery with a pale green hue. It is not an energy and climate plan, and Obama will still face heavy regulatory and legislative lifting to turn promise into reality before Copenhagen.

Expectations are high that he will exercise the executive authority he already has under the Clean Air Act to achieve some quick victories and put pressure on Congress to act boldly. With former EPA chief Carol Browner heading up his climate team in the White House, Obama has tapped the talent he needs to implement a powerful regulatory strategy. As expected, the EPA’s first order of climate business is already moving forward: granting a long-delayed waiver to California to allow the state to impose more stringent auto emissions rules, which 13 other states are poised to adopt as well. Manufacturers will soon have to deliver higher mileage vehicles on an accelerated schedule. By approving the waiver after a formal review process, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson will guarantee steep future emissions reductions from the transportation sector, and allow the thorny bailout of Detroit to proceed without any doubt as to where the industry must head, despite currently low fuel prices.

The boldness of Obama’s regulatory strategy, however, really hinges upon the fate of coal-burning power plants under the Clean Air Act. Since the Supreme Court affirmed in Massachusetts v. EPA that carbon dioxide

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could be regulated as a pollutant under the law, it has become an open question as to how existing coal plants and permits for new ones will now fare under the act. The EPA plainly has the right to control CO2 emissions, and the real issue is how aggressively the law will be applied. In the short term, the question of coal rests largely in Obama’s hands, and he has the authority to stop new dirty coal plants cold. He proved it his first week in office when the EPA revoked an air permit for the Big Stone II coal plant in South Dakota, pending further review.

If that first signal gets amplified, it will certainly change the tone of what happens with coal in Congress longer-term, where powerful lobbies have held science at bay. The president’s executive action on coal will invigorate Copenhagen and bring seriousness to bilateral discussions with China, the world’s coal juggernaut. At his direction, the Clean Air Act can jump-start climate action by speeding aggressive federal standards for building and appliance efficiency and placing limits on other carbon-intensive sources of pollution — steel mills, cement plants, other heavy industries, and shipping.

Coming to Copenhagen with the necessary legislative accomplishments — in addition to regulatory ones — will be harder still, but it is essential to Obama’s success. The proposed economic recovery package has been disappointing to advocates of public transit, light rail, and smart growth, with sparse dollars allocated to those needs. But with the federal Transportation Bill up for reauthorization in 2009, Obama has another chance to redirect land use away from highway sprawl and in a low-carbon, mass-transit direction. The administration should also strengthen energy efficiency incentives and clean energy tax credits, adopt a mandatory federal renewable energy target, and increase investment in a clean energy grid.

To secure his crowning achievement, Obama must expend political capital in Congress and work with leaders there to complete passage of science-based federal legislation capping greenhouse gas emissions. The legislation must be signed into law this year, as delay into 2010 will wreck it on the shoals of mid-term elections, a time when political courage disappears. There will not be another political opportunity as ripe as now; nor will there be another financial context more sensitive to a strong new signal. As the global economy starts to rise from collapse, it must do so with a price on carbon as part of its cure.

There is considerable debate about the form which a cap and a price signal should take — in recent weeks a carbon tax has even been a topic of
Obama must expend political capital in Congress to pass legislation capping greenhouse gas emissions.
renewed discussion. None of the options is perfect, but one of them is rising as a preferred choice because it protects low-and middle-income families from rising energy prices. It’s called “cap-and-dividend.” Under this program, permits to pollute the air with greenhouse gases would be auctioned and the proceeds returned to citizens. The extra income, which should be targeted especially to the poor, will protect the most vulnerable American families from rising energy prices and will help build a long-term constituency for climate action. In the present economic crisis, the prospect of sending monthly dividend checks to families is a political winner. It makes a cap-and-dividend plan largely immune from criticism that it will be costly to the public, and it increases the chances of passage this year.

Many believe it may be necessary to reserve some portion of the auction revenues for investments in clean energy programs at home and in adaptation and technology transfers abroad. Whether the allocations should be shared and what the right ratios ought to be will be the subject of intense political negotiation on Capitol Hill.

Still, cap-and-dividend provides the best point of departure because it creates a fundamental break with business-as-usual. It establishes a new, winning, cognitive frame of reference: the democratic principle that an equal share of the sky belongs to each person. Indeed, Peter Barnes, who originally formulated this concept and has championed it tirelessly, began by asking a simple question: Who owns the sky?

Without a price signal, nobody does, and global warming pollution will proceed essentially unchecked. With cap-and-dividend, everybody owns the sky and the emissions cap then becomes universally comprehensible as it begins to turn us toward a low-carbon future.

This American accomplishment, brought by President Obama to Copenhagen along with other concrete actions, would set the stage for passage of a comprehensive international treaty to slow global warming. Now is the year for President Obama to act, while the window of opportunity is wide open.

POSTED ON 02 Feb 2009 IN Biodiversity Climate Policy & Politics North America North America 


I could not agree more that this is the year for movement on this issue. And while I agree with many of your other points, I think a revenue-neutral carbon tax is the best way to avoid the evasion and market manipulation that has plagued cap and trade schemes, all while providing powerful incentives for the creation of new, climate-friendly technologies. www.climatetaskforce.org
Posted by SallyVCrockett on 03 Feb 2009

I agree and would say we even need to go further in promoting an integrated, comprehensive, holistic approach to environmental legislation like GREEN PLANS. I recommend reading Huey Johnson's simple but profound book on Green Plans to learn how the Netherlands and New Zealand (with a combined population of 20 million) have dealt with environmental policy in a comprehensive way. There are great models for dealing with climate change AND energy AND water, etc etc. which represent an important leap forward from piecemeal legislation.
For more, see http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/Green-Plans,673377.aspx or visit RRI's channel on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/user/ResourceRenewal or their slideshare feed at http://www.slideshare.net/RRI/slideshows
Posted by Pam Strayer on 04 Feb 2009

The "cap÷nd" approach advocated by Northrup and Sassoon is decidedly inferior on both economic and equity grounds. Firstly, it directs some dividend checks to upper-income people who don't need them. Other approaches can target cost-of-living compensation on households that do need the money. Second, using auction revenues that way does nothing to make the economy more efficient or energy-efficient. Better to use the revenues to expand renewable energy, energy efficiency and public transit, and to shift the tax burden away from work (payroll taxes) and income generation. Why tax so heavily just the things we want to encourage, rather than what we want to discourage?
Posted by robert repetto on 05 Feb 2009

I am both astounded and disturbed that the leading environmental organizations across this country give such short shrift to the idea of a carbon tax.

Leading economists have long supported one as the most efficient and effective approach to combating global warming. A number of coal and oil companies are now supportive as well, including ExxonMobil.

But the environmental groups – who have the most to gain from such a tax – no way. Their view, I guess, is that the public would reject any program where the costs are apparent. But, rather than argue the case that there is a cost, worth paying, for reducing global warming, these organizations choose to limit their support to environmental favorites and to those programs where the costs to the general public are hidden. This is not leadership.

A “cap and dividend” program promoted by Messrs. Northrop and Sassoon is just a disguised version of a carbon tax. Its “advantage” is the disguise, which makes it more politically palatable. Otherwise, the advantages are all on the side of a straightforward carbon tax. And, since the basic objective is to stimulate investments in CO2 reduction technology rather than to wrench consumers out of their current consumption patterns, there is every reason to phase a carbon tax in gradually rather than impose it abruptly.

Messrs. Northrop and Sassoon urge President Obama to use his political capital and act immediately and boldly. How about environmental organizations using some of their political capital to address the advantages of a carbon tax

Posted by Nick Tingley on 06 Feb 2009

Since publishing this piece, Michael and I have received a number of comments from readers via personal e-mail and telephone, expressing concern about cap and dividend's insistence on returning 100% of auction revenues to individual citizens; and we found that focus on this detail has distracted from the larger intent of the piece. We did not mean to suggest that auction proceeds should only be used for paying dividends. We are attracted by cap and dividend's ability to protect American families from rising energy prices, not just now, but for the decades-long duration of the transition to a low carbon economy, and therefore, think it politically promising. We were hoping to be additive to ongoing discussion, not provocatively distracting. So to begin with, please allow us to redirect attention to the larger intent of the piece we published here: the need for a strategy that will allow the US to arrive in Copenhagen in a position of leadership with some form of a carbon price signal in hand.
Posted by David Sassoon, SolveClimate on 07 Feb 2009

Professor Repetto,

I'm wondering if you have read Peter Barnes Capitalism 3.0? It makes an interesting argument for creating a "commons" sector to recalibrate capitalism's operating system. I'm not an economist, but I found his thinking persuasive. I'm speaking for myself only here.

Barnes has posed a fundamental question -- Who Owns the Sky? -- and he demonstrates how we answer the question has far-reaching consequences. He argues that making the sky a commons held in trust is the best answer.

His book has persuaded me to think that federal climate legislation ought to make citizens at least the majority owners of carbon proceeds, with some percentage of revenues reserved for investments in clean energy and energy efficiency -- to be determined by the political process. But the notion of propertizing the sky as a commons seems quite equitable, durable and sustainable, and creates a model that sets limits on the ability of corporations to externalize costs -- which is at the root of the market failure called global warming.

It is this notion that I find especially intriguing about the cap and dividend model, and think that its inclusion in some hybrid formulation of policy would be beneficial.

As for a carbon tax, Mr. Tingley, I've been under the impression that until quite recently, it has been regarded as politically unlikely, though theoretically the superlative option, and so have not paid it sufficient attention. As Washington gets down to climate legislation, all options are now being given fair consideration, and it is heartening to see the process really start to move.

I do have one major difficulty with a carbon tax, however, thanks to insight gained from the work of Professor Dan Greenwood now at Hofstra University's School of Law. I recently videotaped an interview with him which I am now editing, in which he explains how we can expect corporations to behave in the face of carbon regulations. They will do everything in their power to avoid them -- not because they are evil, but because they are designed to maximize profits.

So the end result of a carbon tax in the real world will probably be similar to the existing tax code -- riddled with loopholes and political favors. We have no room for error with global warming regulation -- we have one shot to get it right and the solutions must endure for at least a generation. I'm afraid a carbon tax would end being a giant political football rather than a real solution to climate change that will do the job needed.

And that's why Barnes notion of an atmospheric commons held in trust is so attractive to my mind -- it is a long term solution very hard to dislodge -- and a sustainable corrective to the enormous financial and environmental failures our system has now produced simultaneously.

Posted by David Sassoon, SolveClimate on 07 Feb 2009

Ditto on David Sassoon's comment above. A blend of investment in a clean energy future and protection from price spikes for Americans already struggling economically is the most likely and viable political outcome, we think, and that was the intended point in the article, but it was really only a small part of the larger message that we need an integrated approach this year coming from the White House that simultaneously directs us toward achieving two interrealted goals: getting a meaningful multifacted domestic policy underway and an international agreement as well. We will not be able to lead the world forward if we fail domestically. Nor will we achieve domestic success in the proper time frame if we don't keep Copenhagen in mind. It's a big lift, but the first challenge is recognizing the immensity of it and seeing its component parts. Our kids and grandkids cannot afford failure on this. Their world is at great risk. Scientists believe we must take action now. Thanks for the great comments on the piece.
Posted by Michael Northrop on 07 Feb 2009

I think a scaled import carbon tax would be a effective way of protecting industries. A minimum 3% tax for certified worlds best practice product to a max of 9% for uncertified product [worlds worst certified]. Protect ourselves why challanging importers to level the field.
Posted by Dragan Lalic on 04 Mar 2009

In the middle of the worst economic decline in 25 years you guys want to raise the price to produce EVERTHING. Good idea.

If you want to see leadership in preventing global warming on a national scale, I say China with their one child policy, and france with close to 90 percent of their electric coming from Nukes and Hydro, have set a pretty high bar.

Why you think a carbon tax, or a few windmills and solar panels would help is beyond me.

LIkewise mothballing Yucca is truly a huge backwards step and a violation of the law passed by congress saying the US goverment would take the Nuclear waste and store it.

Posted by f1fan on 06 Mar 2009

Please let me try to restore science to it's rightful place.

1. Placing limits by taxing carbon will cripple the economy. Supporting nuclear energy is the only way to reduce real pollution as it the only alternative capable of shutting down fossil fuel plants. Barring this solution adding taxes simply cripples an already suffering economy.

2. Stopping new coal plants cold without viable alternatives leaves us all in the cold.

3. It is absolutely ludicrous to be trying to build solar and wind on the promise that they can control CO2 emissions when beyond any doubt it is impossible. It is also nonsensical to even try to solve a problem that cannot exist as the earth is cooling. It is asinine to try and solve a non-existent problem with an impossible solution.

Once again the "standard" alternatives of wind and solar cannot shut down one fossil fuel plant and they are both unaffordable and their unreliability prevents them from ever being anything but pork projects which cannot meet our needs.

The carbon tax and carbon cap legislation proposed has no hope of cleaning the air, it has no hope of adding capacity to the grid, It has no hope of doing anything productive. Suggesting it has some hidden value that will be forthcoming in twenty or more years is an impossible promise.

We need real solutions to real problems. we need to be energy independent. We need clean air. Carbon taxes do none of these things. Wind and solar do not as well.
Posted by Dahun on 15 Mar 2009

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Michael Northrop is Program Director for Sustainable Development at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. David Sassoon runs SolveClimate.com, a Web site focused on debating and advancing solutions to global warming. Their last story for Yale Environment 360 examined how U.S. lawmakers can use the Clean Air Act to tackle climate-change legislation.



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