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.

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.”