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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 6:03 AM EST

But amazingly, this program has a history of ignoring the growing risks brought on by climate change and sea level rise. "Traditionally, FEMA flood maps have been geared to a 100-year flood based on historic record, rather than looking forward based on climate projections," says Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center. In other words, FEMA still bases its planning on the planet of the past, rather than the planet of future in which vulnerability is increasing, rather than staying static.

New legislation passed in June took steps towards modernizing the program, and promoting climate planning—but that's just the beginning. The flood insurance program went into considerable debt after Hurricane Katrina, and that's likely to happen again after Sandy—meaning Congress will have to raise its flood "debt ceiling," so to speak. "In the context of that," Arroyo says, "ideally you would also see some funds that promote preparation in the future, rather than just dealing with things in 'disaster mode.'"

Of course, FEMA is just one of many federal agencies that need to modernize in the face of climate change—from the US Army Corps of Engineers to the Department of Transportation, the infrastructure and programs that will be impacted by climate are massive. In 2009, Obama issued an executive order requiring every federal agency to assess its vulnerability to climate change (e.g., low-lying highways, bridges, and other infrastructure). But these reports have not yet been released—in fact, Arroyo charges that they have already been written, but are being held up. Now that he has won reelection, it's past time for Obama to put them out. "That I hope will be a starting point, looking at the government's own buildings and infrastructure," says Arroyo.

3. Eliminate climate change accelerants

Besides promising to be a communicator on climate change, Obama also talked last week about huddling with scientists and engineers to figure out if there are any quick, "short term" moves by the government that can help mitigate the warming underway. As it turns out, there certainly are.

Scientist found that capping emissions of soot could halt up to half a degree centigrade of projected warming by 2050.

In a paper in Science earlier this year, NASA scientist Drew Shindell and his colleagues suggested there's a lot of bang for your climate buck to be gained by capping emissions of soot (sometimes called black carbon) and methane. The researchers found that up to half a degree Celsius of projected warming by 2050 could be halted in this way. What's more, there would also be very positive public health ramifications of such steps—reduction of asthma and cardiopulmonary disease—because of improvements in air quality.

Methane, in particular, has a dramatic warming effect in the atmosphere—molecule for molecule, it has 72 times the punch of carbon dioxide over a 20 year time frame. But so-called fugitive methane emissions from gas drilling and other sources are largely unregulated. "There are no state or federal rules limiting methane emissions to address climate concerns," says Eric Pooley. "There ought to be."

4. Unleash the EPA

Which brings us to the role of the EPA. Without a doubt, it has by far the largest part to play in battling global warming in Obama's second term. That's especially the case now that the courts have largely cleared the way for EPA to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in order to protect public health and welfare.

Considerable progress on this front has already been made during Obama's first term. 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. The causes behind this not-so-bad news include the recession, tough regulatory actions by states like California, better fuel and energy efficiency—and most of all, strong regulatory steps by EPA.

Empowered by the Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, which ensured its authority to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, EPA began enacting a suite of ambitious regulatory plans. Most notably so far, new vehicle fuel economy standards are slated to push average efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

But Obama's reelection likely ensures another set of big regulatory gains, this time through capping emissions from power plants—particularly the coal-fired ones that, together, are responsible for about a third of total US greenhouse gas emissions.

How stringent regulations will those regulations be? The EPA's rulemaking process requires it to deal with newer and less dirty power-plants first; it has already proposed tough new standards for those. But after that come regulations for the really big existing polluters—which is where the real emissions cuts could be made.

It is hard to understate how big a deal these regulations could be; and while Republicans in the House of Representatives will most assuredly gripe about the EPA's alleged power grabs, it's less clear that they can stop them. "I think the science compels action to address the single largest source of carbon pollution in our country, and one of the single largest sources on the planet," says Vickie Patton, general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund. "The clean energy solutions are at hand. And the administration has ample authority to chart a path forward in addressing this dangerous pollution."

5. Restart the conversation about pricing carbon—without cutting off the EPA

You'll notice that nowhere—yet—have we addressed all the buzzing noises of late about carbon taxes, which are being pushed by a centrist alliance of thinkers from the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and other outlets. That's not just because the political feasibility of getting a carbon tax through Congress remains pretty questionable (and as noted, the White House doesn't seem keen either). It's also that at least as proposed by some thinkers, a tax on carbon would be intended to replace—or technically, "preempt"—all of these ongoing actions by the EPA.

Sure we need to legislate a price on carbon, to help accelerate a shift towards clean energy sources. But ever since Massachusetts vs. EPA, it has been clear that if Congress stalled out in achieving this goal, regulatory actions on carbon emissions would proceed apace at EPA (at least so long as Democrats controlled the presidency). Now, it's questionable whether it is a good deal to accept carbon taxes or caps in a congressional deal that would wipe out or undermine EPA's considerable achievements. "Those who are arguing that a carbon tax should displace these bedrock protections under our nation's clean air laws are seriously misguided," Patton says.

Now, to be sure, the above is nowhere close to enough action on climate change. But it is still quite significant—and certainly gives the lie to bizarre suggestions that Obama won't be that different from Mitt Romney on climate change.

To get further still, it will be necessary to push the climate conversation—rekindled by Superstorm Sandy—ever more rapidly forward, all the while goading the president to keep his word and lead. "We've just had a shift," says Eric Pooley, "a surprise moment when the calculus of what is politically possible just changed." President Obama is a smart enough politician to know that. Let's see what he's willing to do with it.

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