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What Obama Can Do on Climate Change

Five big steps the president can take—with or without the help of Congress.

| Mon Nov. 19, 2012 7:03 AM EST

It was halting, and hardly eloquent. He seemed rusty talking about the issue, even saying "carbons" at one point instead of "carbon." But nonetheless, in a White House press conference last Wednesday, President Obama went the furthest he has gone yet in laying out a climate change agenda for his second term.

"I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions," Obama said, "and as a consequence, I think we've got an obligation to future generations to do something about it." The president then went on to discuss his plans to pursue both short- and long-term climate solutions—and most of all, emphasized creating "a conversation across the country" to educate Americans and determine what they're really ready to commit to, policywise, on the issue.

There were few specifics of the sort that climate watchers wanted to hear, however—and they were justly incensed the next day, when White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed both the notion of a carbon tax, and tying global warming to Superstorm Sandy (actually, the connection is quite clear and unambiguous). Nonetheless, Obama's halting words reflect a stark political reality: Thanks to Sandy, we're only now taking baby steps back towards the political traction that we had obtained four years ago, when cap and trade legislation really seemed achievable—before the Category 5 intensification of tea party science denial. Before the climate silence.

Despite these setbacks, however, there are many reasons to think that Obama's administration in its second term can do a great deal to make progress on climate change. And that progress will be much stronger if Obama, as his words on Wednesday seemed to promise, actually takes the lead.

"This is a process," says Eric Pooley, author of The Climate War and former deputy editor of Business Week, and now a senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund. "It took a while to get to this place where climate silence had settled over our politics, to the point where the issue never came up in the debates. And it's going to take a while to get back to a grown-up conversation about solutions."

"Obama leading the way back to that grown-up conversation is crucial," Pooley adds. "And he has everything he needs to do that."

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The situation is growing ever more urgent. Sometime in Obama's next term, we're likely to pass a threshold that, for the scientifically attuned, is terrifying: carbon dioxide concentrations of 400 parts per million in the atmosphere. That's already far more atmospheric carbon than at any time in the modern history of the planet, and well past the 350 parts per million threshold that NASA's James Hansen has flagged as a crucial marker, beyond which we risk of "irreversible catastrophic effects." Monitoring stations have already measured 400 parts per million carbon concentrations over the Arctic. The global average is expected to catch up within a few years.

Obama may not single-handedly solve this problem, but there is much that he can achieve—with or without the cooperation of Congress. That last point is crucial: There is a great deal that the agencies of the federal government can do simply through administrative action. Indeed, that's just what Bill Clinton did on the environment repeatedly in his second term, preserving millions of wilderness acres as national monuments, saving forests from roads and industry, and advancing clean air and drinking water protections.

"President Obama can have a precedent-setting second term by following the Clinton model, of using existing executive authority to achieve goals that may be unreachable via Congress," explains Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress.

Herewith, then, a realistic—not over optimistic—list of steps the president and his administration might take to cut carbon pollution, and prepare the nation for climate change, in the next four years:

1. Use the bully pulpit

If there's one point of consensus about what Obama can and should do on the climate issue, it's simply to keep the commitment he made last Wednesday and actually talk about it. Loudly and often—and, at best, in a major policy speech that sets the agenda.

"How about an address to the nation where he talks about the climate threat, and connects the dots between extreme weather and climate change in a scientifically rigorous way?" Pooley asks. "That would be a wonderful moment."

But when? At his press conference last week, Obama was understandably consumed with fiscal cliff negotiations. Fine: Suppose he waits a little. As it happens, a process is already underway that, arguably, will give the the president his best opportunity to talk about climate change sometime next year.

It's called the National Climate Assessment, and it looks, scientifically, at the vulnerabilities of each part of the United States to climate change—from sea level rise affecting Gulf Coast infrastructure, to the growing risk of wildfires in the west. A draft of the next report installment is slated to be out late this year or early next. If Obama wants to convene a "conversation around the country" about climate, it is hard to imagine a better conversation starter.

2. Promote climate resilience

"Federal flood insurance is a way the entire country subsidizes building and rebuilding in places destined for repeated hits," says one marine scientist.

But that's just the beginning. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, some of the most important climate policy developments over the next four years are likely to involve adaptation and resilience steps taken by the federal government. And no wonder: The toll from extreme weather on the United States in the past few years has been stunning. In 2011, for instance, there were 14 weather disasters whose damages totaled a billion dollars or more. While official statistics are not in yet, 2012 has hardly been much better, considering that damages from Hurricane Sandy alone could cost $33 billion, according to New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

How can the federal government make us better prepared for this new era of costly megadisasters? Very thick booklets could be written about the matter, but for just one example, consider the FEMA-managed National Flood Insurance Program, whose purpose is to insure homeowners in vulnerable coastal and low-lying areas. "Federal flood insurance is a way the entire country subsidizes building and rebuilding in places destined for repeated hits," as the marine scientist and author Carl Safina has put it.

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