12 Nov 2012: Opinion

Will President Obama Seize
Moment on Climate Change?

Climate change received scant attention in the election campaign. But with public concern about global warming growing in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, President Obama has an unprecedented opportunity to take bold action on climate and clean energy.

by william becker

As President Barack Obama interprets what the election told him about his priorities for a second term, how much weight will he give to global climate change? On his very crowded list of pressing issues, where will climate action rank?

It should be near the top of his agenda. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, with the U.S. public increasingly accepting the stark reality of climate change, he has an unprecedented opportunity to take bold action. Although polls have placed global warming far down the list of national priorities this year, they’ve also shown that a growing bipartisan majority of Americans wants the president and Congress to confront this issue. It is an unorganized and mostly silent majority so far, but it exists, and the president has the skills to mobilize it.

President Obama sent an encouraging signal in his victory speech in Chicago when he said, “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt... that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” After a campaign in which he had largely ignored the issue, Obama’s mention of climate change at such a key moment was striking. One of the benefits of political campaigns is that our leaders learn things outside the Beltway.

If he follows through on his soaring election-night rhetoric, the president will find public support for action. A series of public opinion polls conducted during the campaign by the Yale Project on Climate Change
Obama should call on the public to create a hailstorm of calls to Congress, demanding it support a new climate bill.
Communications found that 70 percent of Americans now accept that climate change is real; 54 percent acknowledge it is caused mostly by human activities; 74 percent believe it is influencing our weather; 57 percent say it is a growing threat to people in the United States; and 58 percent say they’re worried about it. The Yale polls were confirmed by similar results in October from the Pew Research Center, among others. And these polls were conducted before Hurricane Sandy, which almost certainly would have increased all of these numbers.

So, what can President Obama do to cultivate, mobilize and build upon this thus-far largely silent majority that supports action on climate change? Here are five opening suggestions:

First, soon after his inauguration, the president should address the American people in a televised speech dedicated to the imperative that we must confront climate change and make the transition to a clean energy economy. He should not let the memory of Sandy fade. He should call on the public to create a hailstorm of calls to Congress, demanding that it support a new climate bill and the president’s climate-action agenda.

Second, the president should demonstrate that climate change is not a partisan issue. He should convene committed leaders from both parties and seek their advice on building a trans-partisan coalition to address climate and energy security aggressively over the next four years.

These need not be the usual suspects from Congress. Instead, they might include Democrats such as former U.S. energy secretary and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former Gov. Bill Ritter, whose policies created thousands of clean energy jobs during his tenure in Colorado. They should
Barack Obama at Solar Plant

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
President Obama at a Nevada photovoltaic solar plant in March, 2012.
also include members of the rational wing of the Republican Party. Among them are current and former Republican officer holders who “get” climate change, some whom lost reelection because they took a stand on the issue. These include former Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida; former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina; Utah’s former Gov. Jon Huntsman; California’s former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; and Sen. Susan Collins and outgoing Sen. Olympia Snow, both of Maine. Then there’s New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who endorsed Obama as the candidate most likely to deal with climate change, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who braved condemnation by his party and created the most reassuring moment of the campaign when he showed Republicans and Democrats can work together, putting people above politics.

Third, the Administration should lead the long-overdue development of a national roadmap to a clean energy economy. Each president is required by law to send Congress a national energy policy plan every two years, detailing how the nation will address energy supply and energy conservation to create jobs, enhance national security, and protect the environment. The Obama Administration has yet to comply. Obama acknowledged earlier this year that the current national energy policy was a “hodgepodge” of goals and programs scattered across various agencies. He could appoint a presidential commission that includes economists, energy experts, mayors, and governors to develop the key elements of a roadmap.

In the meantime, Obama should direct the Department of Energy to develop a methodology to calculate the full life-cycle benefits and costs of America’s energy options, including social, environmental, security and ecosystem service impacts. Such a tool would turn the president’s
The president’s ‘all of the above’ energy policy must be turned into a ‘best of the above’ plan.
indiscriminate “all of the above” energy policy into a “best of the above” energy plan.

There is overwhelming public support for renewable energy, which along with efficiency, is the most sustainable way to achieve greater energy independence and reduce the emissions that contribute to global warming. On the eve of the first presidential debate, an independent poll by Hart Research Associates found that 92 percent of registered voters, including 84 percent of Republicans, considered it important for the nation to develop solar power.

Fourth, Obama should champion the de-carbonization of federal fiscal policy — all the ways an Administration and Congress influence the economy with revenues and disbursements. Bipartisan interest in tax reform is a good place to start. The groundwork is already being done by the National Academy of Sciences, which is putting finishing touches on a carbon audit of the tax code at the direction of Congress. Obama could reconstitute the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to identify other fiscal policies that could be “de-carbonized” without harming national security or the economy, including the government’s massive farm and transportation bills.

Fifth, President Obama should use his bully pulpit and organize the government’s various energy efficiency programs to launch a national campaign on energy productivity. He should establish the goal of making
The president should set a goal of making the U.S. the world’s most energy efficient industrial economy.
the U.S. the most energy efficient industrial economy in the world. Today, our economy wastes 86 percent of the energy it consumes — an unsustainable squandering of resources that takes money away from businesses, communities and households; increases pollution; contributes to climate change; and makes it less likely the U.S. economy will be robust and competitive. A high-profile campaign on energy productivity could be a critical step in cutting this enormous waste.

If this is, indeed, an actionable moment on issues related to climate change, it would be poetic justice. For it would come right after the media leaders in New York who have ignored this issue, and the policymakers in Washington who have been too timid to address it, experienced up close what happens when climate change injects its steroids into extreme weather events.

In a dream scenario, the monster storm and its terrible destruction along the East Coast would end the influence of climate deniers in Washington. Congress would wrestle free from the grip of the carbon lobby to pass an equitable, transparent, and effective market-mechanism that rapidly reduces U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Citizens would demand it, and President Obama would use his oratorical gifts and executive powers to lead the nation to a low-carbon economy.


Forum: Assessing Obama’s
Record on the Environment

Assessing Barack Obamas Environmental Record
When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, environmentalists were optimistic that their issues would finally become a priority at the White House. So how is Obama doing? Last year, Yale Environment 360 asked a group of environmentalists and energy experts for their verdicts on the president's performance.
It’s likely most Americans would support this scenario — by bigger majorities, in fact, than Obama won in the election. Another poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications last March found that 58 percent of Americans think Congress should be doing more to address global warming; 54 percent think President Obama should do more; 61 percent think the fossil energy industries should be held responsible for the hidden costs of their fuels; 65 percent support an international climate treaty; and 63 percent think the U.S. should act on its own, no matter what other nations do.

So now that he has won his last election campaign, will Barack Obama confront what is arguably the mother of all threats to our future? Among all the big and contentious issues he must deal with in his second term, there is no bigger legacy he can leave the nation, no greater opportunity to make the United States the moral leader of the world again, and no bigger standard by which history will judge him.

POSTED ON 12 Nov 2012 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Climate Policy & Politics Sustainability North America 


Uh, President Obama has been on the whole climate change issue since the beginning. It's just about the conservatives changing their ways towards "green energy".

Posted by Bill on 12 Nov 2012

Where is it written that the world's climate must remain the same? I will grant you the likelihood that man has negatively impacted the earth, but the insistence that the climate should never change is ridiculous. And tying a hurricane to it is nothing more than fear mongering. It seems that every weather phenomenon is somehow the result of global warming or the mythic climate change. Even if you get it addressed here what will the result be? A carbon tax? As though a new tax will fix the supposed issue. All that proves is the continued addiction government has to taxation. You want to fix the earth's issues? Look at the real problem PEOPLE! There are too many. Until you address that you fix nothing.

Posted by Drew on 12 Nov 2012

It seems point 4 and 5 smack 3 in the face as if we already know how to fix this problem. So let's say we wake up tomorrow and the whole nation is solar-we have achieved clean energy. Will this change the equilibrium enough to effect climate change? All the eggs in one basket is no good. We need to work with natural law and realize the earth has cycles that existed far before us. When will we begin to complete a cycle?

Posted by on 12 Nov 2012

Excellent article by William Becker. The world is eager about President Barack Obama's actions to
control global warming and climate change besides massive usage of clean energy technologies.
Global warming and climate change as the words indicate are global problems affecting every nation, both developed and developing. U.S actions on these will be very crucial.

Dr. A. Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 12 Nov 2012

Let's say that by some miracle Obama gets the U.S. working to convert to renewable energy. Would he also tell coal companies that they cannot mine their coal, and not export it? As the U.S. reduces it's coal usage, exports are growing. The coal is just being burned somewhere else into the same atmosphere we breathe. It is all about the Tragedy of the Commons.

Posted by John D on 12 Nov 2012

Thanks for the comments so far. I'll respond to a few points.

First, I did not argue - and no climate-action advocates presume - that the climate will stay the same. It does indeed have natural cycles. But it also is being affected by human activity that will cause substantial changes in the climate for a long time to come, even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today.

Second, yes, President Obama has "been on the whole climate issue since the beginning." As I
acknowledge, he did a great deal in his first term, including a few historic things and many smaller things. But he didn't fully commit to what could have been the most timely and consequential acts of leadership - a market-based mechanism to control emissions and an international treaty in which all countries make binding commitments. Both were, and still are, critical steps.

Third, I don't think Obama should oppose coal. He shouldn't oppose oil or nuclear power, either. He should oppose air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, imports from nations that support terrorism, mercury pollution, nuclear waste production before we can permanently store it, and so on. Any energy resource that passes a true, full-cost, life-cycle performance test should be supported.

A performance standard that gives us objective criteria for the energy that government supports would encourage the fossil industries to clean up, insofar as they can. It would spur innovation. As Obama has said, we should consider "all of the above", but we should use "only the best".

Finally, I know of no one who claims that every weird weather event is a result of climate change. For the most part, when climate is a factor, it makes weird weather weirder. When weird weather becomes the norm, however, and when it establishes a clear pattern over years, we are experiencing a change not only in weather, but also in climate.

Whether or not we accept the conclusions of climate science, we should manage the risk that it is correct. And as it turns out, most of the things we should do to mitigate climate change are things we should do anyway for many other good reasons.

Posted by William Becker on 12 Nov 2012

Well thought out, even wise, but still stuck in winning popular support and renewables as solution. Sigh, like you still read people advocating for a puny low two-digit carbon tax.

Becker doesn't mean to mis-educate but like the rest of the impressive crowd of pundits all recommending what the President can do in his second term about climate change, he stays safely in the BAU box. This path won't even keep emissions from still rising in 2016 let alone make the needed 10 percent a year emission reduction (Anderson-Bows) to not exceed 2C, already deep into dangerous climate change.

How about 'Climate change is an emergency'.

Posted by Bill Henderson on 12 Nov 2012

Thank you for an excellent summary of the President's options. Advocates like myself- working locally and supporting national campaigns, hanging on the every word of analysts like yourself and the people at CAP who have an inside sense of what's possible in DC... and knowing that public understanding of the science is critical to building political will- are perennially hopeful that the President will actually lead the charge. We get it that a proactive elite speaking out (consistently) is probably the quickest way to get the snowballing of public support we need. We also look to fearless allies like Markey & Whitehouse who do what they can in the face of executive inaction on core policy.

So the first action you recommend, a serious address to the nation, really is the most important step. "In a dream scenario" this will happen. But it may not. And if it does, it may lay a course that soft-sells the urgency and falls far short of achieving mitigation goals indicated by the science.

My question is this. Would you specifically support the idea that it's finally time for a grand alliance of climate leaders & stakeholders from climate science, business, multiple levels of government, the environmental movement and civil society to collaborate in leading the public discourse and bolstering whatever leadership may come from the President? If so, can you speak to the barriers to high level collaboration?

The resources to assemble such a coalition are deep, and the potential for developing an effective, long term media strategy and campaign for solutions and climate action is self-evident. With all respect to McKibben and so many others, when does the cross-sector climate movement leadership assemble itself to take the lead? Will the potentially fatal reliance on elites, inadequate media focus and incremental baby steps never be done with?

Posted by Brian R Smith on 12 Nov 2012

Brian, yes, I would support a broad coalition to campaign for climate solutions. You ask what the barriers would be. You address a big one: that without the right mix of members, the effort will be dismissed as a purely environmental cause.

As you point out, a coalition should be cross-sectoral, involving "unusual suspects" - conservatives, the faith community, sportsmen, business leaders, the insurance industry, health care professionals, the defense and military communities, state and local officials and so on.

One cross-sector, formed in 2007, was the US Climate Action Network, which involved a number of large corporations and environmental groups. It got attention because the business-enviro collaboration was unusual. Its push was for a cap-and-trade bill from Congress, which passed the House, but failed in the Senate.

Another barrier is message discipline. The members of such an eclectic coalition need to agree on their message and stay with it consistently. The danger is that the many different interests in such a coalition will go off on their own messages, diffusing the effort. The message needs to be clear, uncluttered, actionable, defensible and consistent.

Posted by William Becker on 13 Nov 2012

Bill Henderson: I agree with you that many of us seem to push for relatively small incremental
solutions when emergency action is required - transformative rather than transactional hange, as they say.

My thought after so many years working on energy and now climate security is that it will take a "Pearl Harbor moment" to give the public the motivation and politicians the courage to push change at that speed, scale and depth. As you know, we've tried the usual processes - political action, small-scale protests, lobbying, badgering and making the intellectual and emotional case over and over again.

I've decided that until the Pearl Harbor moment finally arrives, the most useful thing I can do is to help get us - particularly the President - "shovel ready". In other words, in addition to hammering policy makers with blogs, etc.,, the job right now is to assemble innovative and effective policy options the President can implement when the "aha" moment arrives.

We know that climate change is an especially insidious problem because a) by the time the Pearl Harbor moment comes, much of the damage already will be in the pipeline, and b) the feedback loop is too long. Because the impact of today's emissions won't occur for another 30 years, we do not experience the full consequences of our inaction. Our children will.

In my view, it will take more Sandys and/or demonstrations at the scale we saw during the Vietnam War to move the politics of this issue off dead center. I'd prefer the latter to the former, of course.

Interesting that you should mention "emergency". My article here only touched on a few of the proposals from the Presidential Climate Action Project. Another was that the President task the White House Counsel with digging deep into a president's emergency powers - what constitutes an "emergency" and what are the president's authorities once one is declared? And can a president use those powers to prevent an emergency as well as to react to one?

The emergency here is not only physical, it's also fiscal. At the federal level, extreme weather events are adding billions of dollars to the federal budget deficit, which in turn affects the economic recovery. Our structural disaster systems such as dams and levees are growing old and in need of repair at the same time weather disasters are increasing, and no level of government has the money right now to fix or replace them.

So yes, I think we should make the case that climate impacts are already approaching emergency levels for people, property, the economy and national security, and we should move to emergency footing in mitigating the risks.

Posted by William Becker on 13 Nov 2012

Enough with the Sandy argument. The climate cycle which brings hurricanes closer to the Northeast coast has nothing to do with climate change. If anything, we could point to the warming climate as decreasing these storm tracks. New England has been relatively hurricane-free during the last 30 years. The same can be said for the ill-perceived increase in extreme weather events.

We are nowhere near the emergency levels that some contend, and jumping into panic mode will not help move the world achieve a low carbon energy environment. Too much money has already been wasted trying this approach. What we need is a well-coordinated, long-range plan of action. The plan also needs to be economically viable and efficient, lest we plunge the planet into a world-wide depression (although that would reduce CO2 emissions - temporarily).

Posted by Daniel on 13 Nov 2012

Daniel is absolutely right there's no scientific evidence whatsoever that global warming has led to or even will lead to increased hurricane strength and trying to blame hurricane Sandy on climate change is nothing more than exploiting a natural disaster to advance one's political agenda, however well-intentioned that agenda may be.

In the future, we may find that global warming is making hurricanes stronger and more frequent but right now no such evidence exists and environmentalists should stop deceiving themselves that it does.

Posted by EnviroEquipment.com on 13 Nov 2012

President Obama has taken a correct position on the issue, but is unlikely to show any significant leadership.

His technical background is limited, and the White House staff is not capable of preparing much more than the politically-correct (or given the ignorance and polarity of our nation, a politically-incorrect) position on the issue.

That being said, there are a limited number of options, all of which are only palliative, i.e., delaying the inevitable.

The climate-forcing effects of our industrialized society will be tempered when fossil fuel supplies begin a permanent decline. By that time, 200-400 years, the many environmental effects will be profound.

The planet will survive and recover during the following millennia. Humanity's legacy will be disorder on a grand scale.

In 25,000 years, the next glacial era could provide a reset of sorts.

Posted by Russ Brown on 15 Nov 2012

I would like to know the source of the statement, "Today, our economy wastes 86 percent of the
energy it consumes". I have some guesses as to where this figure came from, but I would like to
study the sources behind it as it would be a hard hitting figure to use in my research.

Posted by Brendan Geels on 15 Nov 2012

"In a dream scenario, the monster storm and its terrible destruction along the East Coast would end the influence of climate deniers in Washington"

Isn't it wonderful that people died, and so many suffered? Now they'll listen to us!

So typical of the misanthropic global warming machine - they pray for disasters and death to win political brownie points.

Posted by MarkB on 15 Nov 2012

William Becker,

Thanks for an interesting article. And, to those who engaged in good spirit, thanks for providing some interesting and thought provoking comments.

Daniel and EnviroEquipment.com,

You both seem to assert that “The Sandy Argument” is not valid, yet you provide no evidence to back up your claim. You need to cite an authoritative source(s), rather than authoritarian bluster, if you want to be taken seriously.

Thanks All for a good read.


Posted by Matthew Rosenbaum on 19 Nov 2012

Thanks for the article and comments. It was really nice to hear Obama saying being worried about "the warming planet".

Now the U.S. should follow Europe and set the target to reduce greenhouse gases with 20 percent from 1990 level by 2020.

The U.S. has long way to go to start from 19 tons CO2/capita to EU level of 8 tons/capita and finally to 2 ton/capita, where all nations should be by 2050. 90 percent reduction is needed!

I have been really worried about CO2-emissions, which have been 1300 Gt until today and climate is now 1 oC warmer. The emission level is today 34 Gt/year and 3000 Gt will be emitted until 2100. This will mean that temperature will rise still with 2,5 oC and will be about 3,5 oC warmer than in 1750.

This will mean that seawater level will be 1 m (3 feet) higher by 2100 and 3 - 6 meters (10-30 feet) higher by 2200. It is better to change building codes so the construction should be at about 9 meters (+30 feet).

Finally Obama should make the Change, he promised. He should tell the world that the U.S. is in the same leaking boat!

Posted by Asko Vuorinen on 26 Nov 2012

All forms of extreme weather seem to be increasing in frequency and strength. We are rolling the dice, risking the species and the dice are loaded against us.

see http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/urgentissues/global-warming-climate-change/threats-impacts/stronger-storms.xml

Scientific research indicates that climate change will cause hurricanes and tropical storms to become more intense — lasting longer, unleashing stronger winds, and causing more damage to coastal ecosystems and communities.

Scientists point to higher ocean temperatures as the main culprit, since hurricanes and tropical storms get their energy from warm water. As sea surface temperatures rise, developing storms will contain more energy.

At the same time, other factors such as rising sea levels, disappearing wetlands, and increased coastal development threaten to intensify the damage caused by hurricanes and tropical storms.

Also, note that insurance industries have seen a twofold increase in extreme weather damage costs in the last 10 years, whereas GDP doubled in 20 years. So, it is twice as fast as GDP growth.

Posted by Jan Freed on 16 Dec 2012

A carbon fee (call it tax if you like) with all fees returned to the taxpayer (keeping government impact small and lowering taxes) is preferred by Bob Inglis and other Republicans. It should be far easier to pass than health care laws, and it will shift us to a low carbon economy. See Citizens Climate Lobby

Amidst the smoke and mirrors of climate denial in these comments, a reminder. The would be scientists and their half-baked explanations don't seem to have much cred:

For example..
Scientific Organizations Views on Climate Change

statements by organizations
•      2.1 Statements by concurring scientific organizations
o      2.1.1 Academies of Science (general science)
o      2.1.2 Physical and Chemical sciences
o      2.1.3 Earth sciences
o      2.1.4 Meteorology and oceanography
o      2.1.5 Paleoclimatology
o      2.1.6 Biology and life sciences
o      2.1.7 Human health
o      2.1.8 Miscellaneous
•      2.2 Non-committal statements
o      2.2.1 American Association of Petroleum Geologists
o      2.2.2 American Association of State Climatologists
o      2.2.3 American Geological Institute
o      2.2.4 American Institute of Professional Geologists
o      2.2.5 Canadian Federation of Earth Sciences
•      2.3 Statements by dissenting organizations

For example:

•      Royal Society of New Zealand having signed onto the first joint science academies' statement in 2001, released a separate statement in 2008 in order to clear up "the controversy over climate change and its causes, and possible confusion among the public":
The globe is warming because of increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Measurements show that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are well above levels seen for many thousands of years. Further global climate changes are predicted, with impacts expected to become more costly as time progresses. Reducing future impacts of climate change will require substantial reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.[31]


A Summary Graph of scientific opinion

Posted by Jan Freed on 18 Dec 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
william beckerABOUT THE AUTHOR
William Becker is the executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a privately funded initiative based in Colorado. Since its inception in 2007, PCAP has worked with many of America’s energy experts and thought leaders to produce more than 200 climate policy recommendations for the U.S. president and Congress.



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