03 Jun 2008: Report

What the Next President
Must Do

After years of U.S. inaction, a new president will have to move quickly to address global warming. In an e360 report, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert surveys the views of various nonpartisan groups and provides a blueprint for what needs to be done.

by elizabeth kolbert

The next president of the United States will take office on January 20, 2009. By that point, half of the two years allotted by last December’s Bali conference “roadmap” for negotiating a new international climate treaty will have passed. Meanwhile, of the decade that NASA climate scientist James Hansen has said remains for avoiding a commitment to “dangerous” warming, four-tenths will have ticked by. (Hansen laid out this timetable in 2005.)

All three remaining major candidates have signaled that they would pursue very different policies on global warming than the Bush administration has. But can a new U.S. administration act swiftly enough to compensate for two terms of inaction? And if so, what must it do?

Though the fall campaign has not yet begun, several groups have already turned their attention to these questions. One, the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), has already produced a “first-one-hundred-days” plan for whoever wins the November election.

“A president has to define their administration early,” former Senator Gary Hart, a prominent PCAP member, says. (Hart resigned his position as PCAP co-chairman in order to endorse Barack Obama.) “And we would hope that a new administration would say, ‘This is one of our highest priorities.’ That’s key language.”

In its plan, which was released a few months ago in draft form, PCAP offers the next president nearly 300 recommendations, including: raise passenger vehicle standards to 50 miles per gallon by 2020, set a floor on oil prices of $45 per barrel, and “implement a cap-and-auction system involving the 2,000 ‘first providers’ of fossil fuels to achieve carbon pricing in 100 percent of the economy.” To guarantee “early reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” the group recommends that the new president “direct EPA to regulate emissions immediately under the Clean Air Act.” It also urges the next administration to demand that all new power plants be “carbon neutral” and to offer $1 billion in incentive awards for “breakthrough” technologies. The United States, it says, should aim for a 3-percent-a-year emissions cut through 2020, and a 2-percent-a-year reduction after that, for a total of a 90 percent reduction by mid-century.

“We have purposely tried to push the envelope,” Hart says. “First, because that’s the way you influence policy, and second, because I think the people involved in the project feel a degree of extreme urgency.” PCAP, which is based at the University of Colorado’s School of Public Affairs and describes itself as nonpartisan, has been in contact with the presidential candidates of both parties. Members of the PCAP team met last fall with Obama and with senior advisers from the Clinton campaign, according to PCAP president William Becker, and the group later met with the McCain campaign. On July 1, Becker said, senior advisers from all three campaigns will attend a PCAP meeting in Washington, D.C., that will focus on current climate science and the national defense implications of climate change.

PCAP’s report includes a graphic comparison of its recommendations and the major “cap-and-trade” proposals now before Congress. Hart sees little hope for legislation to limit carbon emissions passing in the 110th Congress. “It’s not going to happen,” he says. By contrast, Eileen Claussen, president of the non-partisan Pew Center on Global Climate Change, argues that “it’s possible” that a bill of some sort could “get through this year.” The most likely candidate, she says, is the Lieberman-Warner bill, sponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va., which was voted out of committee in December. Some environmentalists have criticized that bill as too weak — among other things, it provides for most emissions permits to be given away, rather than auctioned — but Claussen argues that the benefits of waiting for a different, and potentially stronger, bill are outweighed by the costs of further delay.

“I think you might get a slightly better bill if you wait, but not enough better to warrant it,” she says. Plus, she adds: “The longer you wait, the more you actually have to do.” It is only when the United States has some sort of emissions-limiting legislation in place, Claussen says, that it will be able to participate meaningfully in international negotiations. “The new administration has got to jump into this in a very significant way,” she notes, “with a lot of bilateral meetings and a lot of attempts to show a different face.”

As part of its “Economic Plan for the Next Administration,” the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank, has issued a report titled “Capturing the Energy Opportunity: Creating a Low-Carbon Economy.” The report notes that “the urgency of this issue demands a president willing to make the low-carbon energy challenge a top priority in the White House — a centerpiece not only of his or her energy policy but also of his or her economic program.” To this end, it urges the next administration to create a new National Energy Council, composed of all the relevant cabinet agency heads and led by a National Energy Advisor. The council’s first task, according to the report, “should be to support the president in preparing energy legislation for delivery to Capitol Hill within 60 days of the inauguration.”

Dan Weiss, the center’s director of climate strategy noted that “probably the most important thing the new president could do right away is to commit to engage with other nations toward coming up with a post-Kyoto agreement at the end of 2009.” Another step the new president could take, without waiting for congressional action, is to agree to approve the waiver sought by California for the greenhouse gas standards for motor vehicles, Weiss added. “Those are things they could do right away,” he said, “that would send a signal that the days of denial are over.”

David Orr, a professor of environmental studies at Oberlin and the moving force behind the Presidential Climate Action Project, said: “The next administration has really got its work cut out for it. It will have no margin for error. It’s got to move more quickly, insightfully, creatively than probably any government has ever had to move in recorded history.

“I think Gore has it right: this is a global emergency. You get it right in very quick order or there’s going to be hell to pay.”

Orr said he was disappointed that, during the primary campaign, there hadn’t been more discussion about energy and climate issues. “The evidence as far as I can read is that the science is coming in worse and worse almost weekly. And the more we know the less we like what we learn. That doesn’t seem yet to have penetrated this kind of bullet-proof political system we have.

“If we get energy policy right, we’ll get climate right, we’ll get a lot of foreign policy issues right and a whole lot of economic and equity issues right,” Orr noted. “It’s not just an item there on a list. It’s the thing that connects those things in a coherent political agenda.”

POSTED ON 03 Jun 2008 IN Climate Climate Energy Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics North America 


Ms Kolbert,
Great piece. Wonder if you have ever considered the need maybe for polar cities to house survivors of global warming in the future, say 30 generations from now, and if our politicians and leaders might ever start planning for them, even if we never NEED them. What's your POV on these kinds of adaptation strategies?

For more info, if you have never heard of polar cities, google the term "polar cities" and see what others think, both pro and con...
Posted by Danny Bloom on 03 Jun 2008

Dear Ms kolbert,

To extend what you quoted Mr. Orr said at the
end of your article, may I add a few lines?

"..It will get United States back to the
preeminence position in the world as she were
during world two. It will make the next president
the FDR of the 21st century. It may even make
he or she The Next Christ on earth again!"

Yu-tsang Hwang

Posted by Yu-tsang Hwang on 03 Jun 2008

Polar cities, Danny? I think Kolbert is more on target. First greenhouse gas standards for vehicles, then, PCAP plans, and maybe in after a hundred years, if we have be totally ineffective by then, we can debate moving to the poles ;)
Posted by Rich Allan on 03 Jun 2008

What about deforestation??? This IS the first step that must be taken! It requires no technology advancement, only oversight and regulation.
Posted by Joel Lankutis on 03 Jun 2008

I live in a "polar city." Per capita energy
consumption - essentially all of it fossil-fuel based -
is among the highest in the nation. The winters are
long, cold and dark, and global warming isn't going
to really change that.

Ms. Kolbert's "Catastrophe" is an excellent book,
and I admire her work very much. My thanks for
this thoughtful essay.
Posted by Jim DeWitt on 03 Jun 2008

Rich Allan

re: "Polar cities, Danny? .....First [we need] greenhouse gas standards for vehicles, then, PCAP plans, and maybe in after a hundred years, if we have be totally ineffective by then, we can debate moving to the poles ;) ..."

Yes yes, Rich Allan, I agree totally. First things first. Strict greenhouse gas standards for cars, and PCAP plans, and etc etc, yes yes, mitigation is important. But my point in proposing polar cities as an adaptation possibility, just a maybe, is that people are not going to be in a place where they can DEBATE moving to the poles, or northward, these mass migrations are going to be forced in people in 2500 or before, by our inaction today. So yes, take action today. That is my point in all this. Who knows the future? Who cares about the future? Most people could not care less.

OR as a scientist told me today:

" Keep it up the PR work for polar cities, Danny. I like the idea of thinking about future refuges against climate change. It could orient people’s minds toward a future that is looking increasingly likely. "

Exactly. (smile)

Posted by Danny Bloom on 03 Jun 2008

Great, 1200 words of dribble with old thinking of tax “implement a cap-and auction system” and spend “Create a new National Energy Council lead by a National Energy Advisor”. No out of the box thinking with creative ideas for quick and long lasting win / win solutions for both the environment and the economy. Everyday the Federal, state and local governments are teaming with large corporations, business leaders, investors and communities to create value with low enviromnental impact energy producing and energy saving facilities. Let us foster these creative energies instead of burdening the public with increase taxes and more big government bureaucracy. Let the next president lead by example and incentives to meet our environmental goals instead of with a stick.
Posted by Greg Selby on 05 Jun 2008

1) What has happened with the USCAP? That joint industry-enviro effort seemed to be working on specific policy proposals, but it was not mentioned in the article. Any reason why?

2) As large as the GHG emissions-climate change issue is, it may still be too narrowly construed for a solution that can get through Congress and more importantly, engage the public. If we think of this as a climate change-tax policy issue, we might find a solution that will actually pass Congress.

3) Imagine the 2010 Income Tax and Carbon Reduction Act, which would auction off the rights to sell fossil carbon fuel to highest bidder (or perhaps just tax fossil carbon without limiting its amount), and then immediately return the receipts to the People of the United States. Switzerland is already working on something like that: a tax on carbon that is revenue-neutral to the government because the taxes are recycled to the citizens through reductions in their health care premiums. Since everyone in Switzerland must have health insurance by law, such a mechanism makes everyone in the country the beneficiary of the policy, a role rather ironically played by the income tax in the US. This policy protects consumers, and especially those who consume less carbon, from the higher but true cost of carbon, by putting money back in their pockets immediately. Such a policy would peel taxpayers away from the industry groups in the political debate.

4) The 2012 Income and Health Insurance Promotion through Carbon Reduction Act would be even more dizzying: It would not be revenue neutral but would use the windfall from the carbon permits or taxes to fund a combination of income tax cuts and the extension of health insurance. I would call that a New Deal (reprise).

4) I do not underestimate the technical issues required to assess the policies under all possible scenarios (we do not need another California electricity deregulation), the tuning needed to address regressive and distributional aspects, nor the sheer scale of the politicking needed to get such a massive policy undertaking through Congress (or do we just call that the Budget Act?). Still, we need a policy that harnesses the innovation and indeed the self-interest of Americans to drive us irrevocably toward a low-carbon economy.
Posted by Greg Greenwood on 05 Jun 2008

Greg Selby. good cooments. To quote Ben Bernanke in his recent address to Harvard graduates. "Since 1975, the energy required to produce a given amount of output in the United States has fallen by about half." American industry again proves it can do the job. Why must we place our trust in government to solve the problem of carbon emissions, when we have a proven partner in industry that is performing admirably in this regard.
Posted by Rob Neill on 05 Jun 2008

1) A great source of data about how well the economy has performed with respect to GHG and CO2 emissions is the Greenhouse Gas Inventory of the California Energy Commission. See the final staff report at
Look at the data on pp. 8-21.

2)The data start in 1990, fifteen years after 1975, and by that date California had much lower CO2 intensities than most other states. While there are many reasons for that difference, a major one is energy efficiency regulations on appliances and houses that were promulgated in California in the mid-70s. Go to Art Rosenfeld's autobiography, esp. pp 45-50 for a first hand account on how regs on refrigerators obviated the need for additional power plants. (See
http://www.energy.ca.gov/commission/commissioners/rosenfeld.html and download his autobiography).

3) I am sure that Bernanke's statement is correct but its interpretation is more complex. The origins of that decline are many but energy efficiency regulations by the government play an important role. In addition, the overall shift in the economy away from manufacturing and toward services and information would also be important.

4)There is no question that American industry can achieve much higher CO2 intensities and ultimately reduce, even eliminate, GHG emissions, if given the right signals. I have no doubt that American ingenuity and innovation, once rewarded, will be stunning in its ability to solve these problems.

5) How to give the signals? While regulations have been effective, they are expensive to the taxpayer. For the long term reductions in CO2 emissions that we need , a regulatory/incentive approach will require equally long term bureaucracies.

6) Getting the price of fossil carbon to reflect even approximately its true cost to society will send a much more sustainable and less expensive signal to the entire society.

7) The key to getting the price of fossil carbon to reflect the true cost will be to recycle the windfall to the taxpayer. This transition should not be abrupt but should be foreseeable and sustained in order to promote and reward innovation.

8) Higher energy costs and lower income taxes do not preclude the good life. Compared to the US, gasoline is twice as expensive in Switzerland and more elsewhere in Europe. Income taxes are lower in Switzerland than in the US, though this is not the case elsewhere in EU. Nonetheless, life and the economy are pretty good in Europe. The US can get to where Europe is now (see p. 21 of the CEC report) and go much further if we reward innovation in the market.

Posted by Greg Greenwood on 06 Jun 2008

There is a huge disparity between what
McKibben, Hansen and others tell us - getting
back to 350 ppm CO2 maximum within the
coming decade if not sooner - and the failed
congressional energy legislation whose
supporters think we actually have forty years to
save the planet. All the ingenuity and technology
that people think will solve our problems is
barely discernible noise among the pervasive
loud sound of continued fossil fuel consumption;
worse, the growing emphasis on renewable
energy technology is a huge distraction
(deliberate?) from the giant task ahead of us to
reduce our energy use quickly and massively.
Carbon trading only hastens the day of
reckoning as long as it does not include
sufficiently rapid, mandatory requirements to
phase out coal plants within ten years..not forty.
Coal powered plants, under the scheme of 80%
reduction of CO2 by 2050, a figure plucked out
of thin air and not based on science, would
continue operating indefinitely. Does anyone
really think that this constitutes a serious
reduction in CO2? Come off it guys, get real,
with carbon taxes, tough efficiency standards,
gasoline rationing, an end to fossil subsidies and
tax breaks, and a ten-year schedule to shut
down coal plants. I for one will not buy into the
USCAP's plan to help the fossil utilities do
Business As Usual. The carbon trading scam
must be stopped in its tracks, and the truth told:
that we have ten years maximum to change our
habits before the tipping point.
Posted by Lorna Salzman on 08 Jun 2008

The next president might be overly fixated on pleasing lots of constituencies at the start of his term. Health care, the Middle East conflict and jobs will surely vie with or eclipse serious, adequate attention to climate change for immediate attention. It seems rare for a president to push through more than one very large agenda item in an appreciable amount of time. But what if there were a formula for tackling several of the big issues simultaneously? How could that be done? A geographic framework for governance might be the answer. A bipartisan framework must also be more than a catchphrase. Legislators represent geographically defined politically units. And it must be recognized that these geopolitical units have a lot to do with issues like climate change, jobs, and health care. For instance, the bully pulpit and some executive-ordered incentives can foster sustainable planning by local and regional governments. These governments – cities, counties, states, etc. – could be rewarded for effecting such smart growth agendas as: forest and open space preservation; tree planting; urban growth boundaries; pedestrian-friendly communities (a boon for health); GHG emission standards of various kinds; coordination with neighboring communities. Thus, the federal government delegates much of the web of major issues to local governments. This might be one of the easier things to achieve. A federally-funded Works program repairing and creating sustainable infrastructure (in a way that is integrated with local and regional plans) will meanwhile do much to foster the positive psychology that is believed to help the overall economy, even as it shores up faltering economic fortunes and fosters more sustainable lifestyles. With this general approach, the president would be freer to tackle pressing international problems. It’s possible too that coherent, geographically based governance in the US will spill over to the international scene. Imagine Israel and Palestine setting aside their usual conflicts and instead considering the ecological issues that should integrate their common territory. The next president must tackle EVERY problem, and the more systematic and interrelated these become, the better.
Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 28 Jun 2008

I agree with Joel Lankutis--Stopping deforestation in the tropical and boreal forests is the fastest, cheapest, and most effective way to slow GHG emmissions, and should be a top priority in any presidential plan to address Global Climat Change. (See the 'Stern Review Report', on the economics of climate change.)

We also need to take a hard look at biofuels--too many of the candidates blindly tout the benefits of biofuels without recognizing that much of the world's forests are being cleared to plant palm oil, soy and other so-called 'green' biofuels. Too many biofuels require intensive amounts of fossil fuel-based fertilizers to grow on a large scale. Currently with the planting of biofules, we're emitting carbon through forest loss, using fossil fuels as inputs, and losing a huge percentage of the world's species at the same time.
Posted by Robin Barr on 29 Jun 2008

As a High School student, I found this article fascinating. I knew our next president would have to prioritize reducing emissions and passing sound energy legislation, but I did not know it would take this much action so soon. For me, it is comforting to hear statistics such as one candidate's plan to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050 via an economy-wide cap. But how likely, and at what economic risk?

The good news is my generation has a lot of minds ready to do the creative thinking and planning necessary for the ideas stated above. And we have the drive. We are nervous but concious about the ecnomical tendencies of our future, and we will vividly support our new President's environmental advancements, whoever it may be.
Posted by Lilly Lerer on 21 Jul 2008

Comments have been closed on this feature.
elizabeth kolbertABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1999. Her 2005 New Yorker series on global warming, "The Climate of Man” won a National Magazine Award and was extended into a book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, which was published in 2006. Prior to joining the staff of The New Yorker, she was a political reporter for The New York Times.



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