With near-consensus among scientists that catastrophic consequences of anthropogenic global warming are already on their way, yet little being done to avert it, it’s time for the US to begin treating the climate crisis like the planetary emergency that it is. The new presidential administration has a rare opportunity to seize the moment and reassert American leadership on this crucial issue of security, social justice, and economic well-being. I asked experts working across the energy-policy spectrum on how the professedly green Obama administration can hit the ground running.
1. Direct the Environmental Protection Agency to allow California to require carmakers to reduce emissions from cars sold in the state. Current EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson has ignored his staff’s advice in denying California a waiver to implement its Clean Cars program, requiring it to instead defer to less stringent national standards. At Obama’s direction, the new administrator he has nominated, Lisa Jackson, can allow California—plus the 16 additional states eager to adopt its program—to bring the bloated automakers to heel. “He can do this right away,” explains Roland Hwang, vehicle policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC). “In fact, the courts are expecting Obama to do just that.” Expect a lot of moaning and groaning from the beleaguered automakers; producing cleaner vehicles should be a condition of their loan arrangements.
2. Tell the EPA to declare carbon dioxide a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts vs. EPA that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to do just that. “Obama should make the ‘endangerment finding’ under the Clean Air Act the first step toward establishing a regime to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants and other major sources,” declares Daniel Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress (hose president and CEO, John Podesta, directs the Obama transition team). Adds NRDC’s Hwang, it’s “a slam dunk.”
3. Propose a cap-and-trade plan on global warming. Persuading Congress to quickly move on a program mandating—at bottom—a 20-to-35 percent reduction of greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by 2020 would be a good start, as would reductions of 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. But it is important that targets in 2030 and 2040 be set and met to reach, in 2050, a goal of 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels. Otherwise it’s all theory. “It is critical to be on the right trajectory,” says Hwang. Whatever program we adopt “should require emitters to buy pollution allowances in an auction,” adds Weiss, rather than giving them away (which would amount to massive corporate welfare and institute a lobbying stampede the likes of which has never been seen before).
4. Smartly apportion billions as part of an economic stimulus and recovery package. Of the hundreds of billions of dollars of “shovel-ready” infrastructure fortification in states and cities, more than 90 percent is scheduled for more highways—what adds NRDC’s Hwang calls “a whole bunch of bridges to nowhere.” Obama has already called for new economic stimulus, but spending money on the right thing should be a hallmark of an administration truly devoted to change. “He can tell Congress that he wants a massive portion of the package’s funds to go toward further buildout of rail and mass transit projects,” argues Lovass. “ We have to graduate from remedial-class public transportation system.”
5. Make the White House as a case study in green living. If change begins at home, it’s time to green 1600 Pennsylvania. Ever since the Reagan administration reversed the conservation policies of the Carter administration, going so far to take the solar panels off the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania has been a crappy example of a environmentally-conscious home and workplace. Conservation is the low-hanging fruit of reducing one’s carbon footprint; by incentivizing low consumption, California has kept its energy use almost constant while doubling in population over the last 30 years. Obama can kick-start awareness with high-profile actions like putting those panels back up and hiring a White House chef specializing in organic cuisine. “Obama should illustrate that conservation is a personal virtue and very much an American value,” suggests Tad Fettig, director of the PBS series e2: economies of being environmentally conscious.
6. Stimulate smart agriculture. Factory farming is another criminally underrated threat to the planet, releasing methane, which is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, in addition to CO2 and other toxic effluvia. The administration could start by privileging subsidization based on sequestration rather than yield. “If it costs money to emit carbon,” says Jill Richardson, agriculture journalist and founder of the alt-food blog La Vida Locavore, “then why not compensate those who can sequester carbon?”
7. Green America’s fleet. With the automakers reeling after decades of favoring energy-hogging vehicles, this one can kill two birds with one stone. Obama has already asked for a million American-built electric hybrids capable of 150 miles per gallon in six years. While we’re waiting, he should make gas hogs pay their way. Implementing a sales tax or fee structure favoring hybrids, whereby low-mileage vehicles are more expensive to buyers regardless of what the automakers are charging, would be a good way to kick the tires. He could also encourage cities and suburbs to electrify their bus and shuttle fleets, and enact congestion pricing in cities in California, Texas, and New York. Incentivizing other polluters to switch to electric or CNG would be a steal, while cleaning up the automakers’ act would be the home run. “Obama could ensure that a bridge loan program for auto companies requires them to not just speed up their efforts to produce fuel-efficient cars,” explains Weiss, “but also cease their challenges of federal or state clean energy or greenhouse gas programs.”
8. Pave the way for clean tech. By nominating Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy, a Nobel-winning scientist developing renewables, the Obama transition has signaled that it wants to clean up the country’s energy problem. It can start that much-needed process by tripling federal research and development spending on clean technologies like solar, biofuels, and innovations yet to be discovered, a pittance considering how little budget is currently allocated for the problem. As for old, dirty tech, “the White House should seek to ban new coal plants that don’t capture their carbon,” says Joseph Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and manager of its blog ClimateProgress.org.
9. Make Big Oil pay. Resource wars and consecutive quarters of record-setting earnings have made Exxon and other oil titans rich while bankrupting the nation. Although Obama has come out against a gas tax, it is only a matter of time before that wall crumbles. “The Obama administration should end tax breaks for big oil companies, and recover lost royalties from oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico,” explains Weiss. “Banning offshore oil and gas production for at least 50 miles off the coast wouldn’t hurt either.”
10. Modernize the grid. The transmission of power needs more power, whether that is getting renewable energy like wind to urban areas or rethinking regulation already in place. “Obama should initiate national efforts to rewrite state utility regulations to put efficiency on equal ground with supply,” adds Romm. “We need a major effort to create a smart, green grid.”