5 Ways Obama Can Address Climate Change in Second Term

Coming off the warmest year in American history, and with the Northeast still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, President Obama boldly called for climate action during his second inaugural address on Monday.

The president put global warming front and center in his speech, saying “we will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Then, acknowledging the 97 percent of climate scientists who agree that humans are causing global warming — while also taking a shot at the congressional Republicans who deny man-made global warming — the president said “some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.” Obama then made a compelling call for American leadership on climate change, saying “the path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.”

The National Memo asked several climate experts about their impressions of President Obama’s surprisingly aggressive call for climate action and what they would like to see happen in his second term, along with their predictions for what will likely happen.

Climate experts interviewed for this story include Dr. Kathleen Miller from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, Dr. Aiguo Dai, associate professor of climate science in the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at the University of Albany-SUNY, and Harvard professor Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Faculty Group.

Miller perhaps summed up best what was on the minds of many climate scientists following the president’s speech when she told us that “it’s about high time someone at the top level of national government takes this seriously.”

Here are five ways the president can address climate change in his second term.

Photo credit: Rob Carr via Associated Press

Education and Engagement

A pre-inaugural CNN/ORC poll found the public divided on climate change, with 49 percent agreeing with the White House and climate scientists that human activity through greenhouse gas emissions is contributing to global warming.

The president has always made it clear that he needs the American people behind him to force Congress to act, which is one reason the massively successful Organizing for America election infrastructure was recently relaunched as Organizing for Action: to keep Obama’s millions of supporters engaged during the second term.

“I think it’s important for people to have a well-grounded understanding of what climate change means,” said Miller. “I think that there is still too much of a polarized approach in this country — either you are very concerned and overstate the problem or dismiss it entirely. It is imperative to better educate the public and then engage the public so there is an educated exchange with congressional representatives.”

Miller said strengthening connections with the scientific community and having them help educate and engage the public in climate action would be very valuable.

Photo credit: Barack Obama via Flickr 

Regulations and Executive Orders

Outgoing Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson did much to clean the air and water and combat climate change. Under her leadership, the EPA doubled the fuel efficiency of vehicles (by 2025), put in place new mercury and soot rules that will clean the air, took actions to protect the Chesapeake Bay and the Appalachians from mountaintop removal coal mining, and more.

Professor Stavins believes that regulatory and executive environmental actions will continue, and possibly accelerate, under President Obama’s second term no matter who replaces Jackson at EPA. He told The National Memo that a combination of actions and market forces already in place — including low natural gas prices, CO2 regulations, efficiency standards and mercury regulations, along with state and local measures such as California’s AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 — will allow the administration to achieve the international commitment of a 17 percent emissions reduction below 2005 levels by the year 2020.

Photo credit: Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs via Flickr

Promote Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency

Obama has made the largest investment in clean energy in American history, doubling renewable power generation from wind, solar and geothermal sources since 2008. The Recovery Act included $90 billion in clean energy investments.

The president could continue to push clean energy tax credits and subsidies (such as the one year extension of the wind production tax credit passed as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal), while at the same time continuing to call on Congress “to eliminate the wasteful tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, which would save American taxpayers $4 billion per year.”

The low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency could also continue to be promoted through state grants and tax incentives to encourage commercial building and housing retrofits and LEED-certified construction projects.

Photo credit: Fernando Tomas via Wikimedia Commons

Increase Funding for Scientific Research

The president could keep pushing Congress to increase funding for climate research to better understand the science behind climate change and find the best possible solutions to mitigate and adapt to a changing planet.

Scientists and policymakers from different federal agencies are already working on solutions as part of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).

“I’d like to see the president increase funding of basic research on climate science through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal agencies,” said Dai.

Miller said that “it is important to maintain funding for research and environmental monitoring, given the surprising rapidity of the observed climatic changes. It also is important to support efforts to plan for effective adaptation.”

Photo credit: Global Institute of Sustainability via Flickr

International Leadership

Of course, if China continues on its unsustainable course, it won’t matter what America does, which is why it is so important for the president to lead by example.

An editorial in the British publication The Independent on Tuesday said there is a “crucial role for the U.S. president on the world stage,” especially with the World Economic Forum kicking off this week in Davos, Switzerland.

“I’m glad to see President Obama mentioned climate change as a priority in his second inaugural address. The U.S. is well behind Europe in recognizing, mitigating, and preparing for climate change,” said Dai.

Photo credit: The White House via Wikimedia Commons

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