Taking the Lead on Climate Change

January 22nd, 2013 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Taking the Lead on Climate Change

President Obama’s inauguration speech yesterday touched on many issues and considerations for his next term, but none received as much detail and specificity as when he spoke on climate change. From his address:

We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. 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.

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. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

While both Obama and Clinton gave slight mentions to the environment in previous inaugural addresses, in talking about climate change yesterday as a pressing issue, the President made the most extended case for action on climate change in any inaugural address in recent history.

But, with a Republican led House of Representatives, where the majority of that party are still deciding whether or not climate change is even real, how does the President move forward with his ambitious plans? The good news is that even without the help of Congress there is a great deal that the Obama Administration can do in its second term to make progress on the issue of climate change. While he cannot single-handedly fix the problem, there is still a lot that can be achieved. The President can use his executive authority (the right of every President) to achieve environmental goals that cannot be achieved via Congress. While this authority is in no way as sweeping and far reaching as the impact of true policy legislation coming out of Congress, it is really the only option available with such an ineffective House of Representatives.

Here are three key steps that the administration could take that would have a significant impact on our climate moving forward:

Talk About It!

With the tremendous oratory skills of this President, an address to the nation on the threat of climate change could be significant, particularly in light of Hurricane Sandy – helping our citizenry to understand the link between extreme weather and climate change. But it will take more than just one address. The President will need to keep the climate change conversation alive – speaking of it often and loudly. There is no more effective bully pulpit than the office of the Presidency of the United States.

We Must Adapt to Current Climate Conditions

In 2011 there were 14 weather disasters whose damages totaled a billion dollars or more. Congress just allocated nearly 60 billion dollars for rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. A far more effective use of our funds would be to allocate money in advance of disasters for upgrading our research and infrastructure so we are building communities that are more resilient to severe weather with the ability to better adapt to our changing climatic environment.

Currently, both FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are working off of outdated data models. FEMA is still planning based on old data rather than looking towards the future with the current information we have based on the acceleration of global warming. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, using more current data and studies, could also have a far more effective and enduring strategy for stabilizing our infrastructure and minimizing the impact of climate change and future weather disasters.

Utilize the Power of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)

In many ways the EPA can play the most significant role in Obama’s second term when it comes to battling climate change. And the President is no stranger to utilizing this power. He has already made considerable progress during his first term by maximizing the role of the EPA. According to Resources for the Future, we’re going to come close to reducing our emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, which was Obama’s pledge at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009. Key to this reduction has been the strong regulatory steps taken by the EPA. But as President Obama begins his second term, more regulations and restrictions will be necessary, and look for these to come by capping emissions from power plants (particularly the coal-burning plants) which account for about a third of total U.S. greenhouse emissions.

It was encouraging to hear the President make such a strong commitment to tackling the issue of climate change in his address yesterday. Here’s hoping that the power of his words leads to even more powerful action. Today, there is reason to feel optimistic.