Monthly Archives: March 2013

Executive Action Critical, but not Enough to Fight Global Warming

(This blog was first posted on EDF Voices)

Image: Chuck Kennedy/White House

I received the following comment about Part 1 of this series that warrants its own blog post.

The politics of climate change is an issue The Nation has covered extensively, and I think many of our readers would wonder why Mr. Gaby, in asserting that Congressional legislation is the only means of taking serious federal action against climate change, ignores the argument (put forth by the Center for Biological Diversity, among others) that President Obama and his EPA Administrator already have the authority under the Clean Air Act to order dramatic reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Congress is one way; it is hardly the only way. And since Congress is now blocked by right-wing intransigence, and since the hour (as Mr. Gaby notes) is already very late, surely it behooves us to deploy a readier tool, no?  —  Mark Hertsgaard, environment correspondent for The Nation magazine and  author of numerous books about climate change, including HOT:  Living Through the Next Fifty Years on EarthMr. Hertsgaard is also a Fellow of the New America Foundation.

My response:

Because Congress failed to pass comprehensive climate legislation in 2010, and prospects for action in the current Congress are remote, many environmentalists have been focused on steps President Obama can take on his own. And it is true that the President has authority under the Clean Air Act to take significant action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. But while these steps are both necessary and critically important, they do not let Congress off the hook in the long run.

Why? To borrow a line from the 2012 campaign, it’s simple math.

The World Resources Institute recently studied the impact of actions the EPA could take under existing law. In Goldilocks style, they laid out three scenarios – lackluster, middle-of-the-road, and go-getter – based on the aggressiveness of EPA’s approach. Unlike the home-invading blonde of the fairy tale, WRI recommends the most aggressive approach, which would reduce emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. That’s the same level of reductions that would have been achieved by the failed congressional legislation. What’s more, this path would result in a 40% reduction in pollution by 2050.

So what’s the problem?  Well, a 40% reduction is only half of what we need to achieve to avert the worst impacts. In other words, we can’t get to a safe climate from here without action by Congress, even under the most aggressive scenario of executive action. As WRI says, “New federal legislation will eventually be needed, because even go-getter action by federal and state governments will probably fail to achieve the more than 80 percent GHG emissions reductions necessary to fend off the most deleterious impacts of climate change.”

Without that level of commitment, we also won’t see other countries achieve the reductions necessary. While about one-third of the world’s economic output is technically covered by some form of greenhouse gas emissions limit, these rules are far from enough to solve the problem. And while growth-hungry nations in Asia are starting to take steps on climate change, they will likely insist on bold action by the United States before moving as aggressively as is necessary.

The most important short term domestic priority for environmentalists should be ensuring that EPA carries out its obligations under the Clean Air Act*. That would cut billions of tons of pollution and buy us critical time in the fight against climate change. But if we are to prevent the worst impacts of artificially altering the Earth’s natural systems, we need Congress to eventually accept its responsibility to protect the nation.

*EDF economist Gernot Wagner has more details on executive actions President Obama can take to tackle climate change.

Posted in Climate Change Legislation, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy / Comments are closed

Republicans vs. Democrats: Why Washington is Stuck on Climate Change (Part 2)

(This blog was first posted on EDF Voices)

Image by DonkeyHotey/Flickr

Look at the polls: Twice as many Democrats as Republicans say that most scientists agree that climate change is occurring. But why don’t conservatives believe in climate change? For some progressives, the answer is easy: Republicans are dumb or backwards or fooling themselves. They may feel the same about me, since I don’t think it ever makes sense to write off a hundred million of your fellow Americans as fools for disagreeing with you.

It is certainly true that partisanship drives a lot of the opposition. President Obama is for it, so they are against it. Al Gore is the face of climate change, so it must be wrong. That’s an irrational approach to any issue, but it is something we all do. Democrats should try this thought experiment: If Dick Cheney were promoting an issue, calling on Americans to make it a national priority and touring the country with a fact-filled slide show, would you be willing to agree with him?

Gallup Poll

You might say it would depend on the facts he was presenting, but if I honestly ask myself the question, I know it would be very hard for me to stand on his side.

Or look at the issue of missile defense. There may be plenty of reasons to be skeptical of missile defense, but for most progressives who don’t follow the issue closely (like me), I think our opposition is rooted in the fact that President Reagan first promoted it.

Progressive are no more interested in having their cities bombed than Republicans are in having them flooded, and very few non-experts on either side really understand the complex science of either issue. But we have taken our cues from the leaders we trust, and instinctively oppose those with whom we generally disagree. (Just to be clear, I’m not arguing the relative merits of missile defense and climate action. My point is simply that tribalism and partisanship tends to color our judgment.)

So it makes sense that conservatives would start out as skeptical toward climate change. But once every major scientific organization has concluded the science is right, shouldn’t they get past that? After all, the consensus view of climate science has been endorsed by the august and stodgy National Academy of Sciences, which President George W. Bush called the “gold standard” of scientific inquiry.

It may be that a more important reason many conservatives are reluctant to accept the science of global warming is that the solutions worry them. Addressing the problem will require national policies (and international cooperation) that shift our economy towards clean energy, and the GOP generally wants less, not more, government. So conservatives are going to demand very strong evidence that the problem is real and dangerous.

Still, I believe that for most conservatives, the bar of proof is not set infinitely high. When they see a real, dangerous threat, they get behind government action. For example, Republicans support the Centers for Disease Control’s work to fight epidemic diseases and FBI efforts against organized crime. Similarly, once conservatives are convinced that climate change threatens our way of life, they will support policies to address the problem. Their solutions may be different from EDF’s, but that’s a debate the nation would benefit from having.

Next time: How to build a constructive conversation between progressives and conservatives on climate change.

Posted in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Policy / Read 1 Response

If You Can’t Stand the Heat: Why Washington is Stuck on Climate Change (Part 1)

(This blog was first posted today on EDF Voices)

Image by Vinoth Chandar/Flickr

There is no point in being coy about this: The issue of climate change is polarized along partisan and ideological lines.

Democrats and progressives think it is a dangerous threat to the world. Most Republicans and conservatives think the threat is exaggerated, or doesn’t exist at all. The divide among politicians is even more striking – less than a third of Republicans in Congress responding to a 2011 National Journal survey said climate change is causing the Earth to warm.











Against this political backdrop, many critics say that groups like EDF, which  seek to start a dialogue with conservatives on the issue, are  naive.  No conciliatory language, no middle-ground proposals, they say, will draw more than a few Republican votes in Congress. Conservative members of Congress will simply vote against us once Rush Limbaugh starts railing against the global warming “hoax”.

It’s a reasonable argument, but I think it misses an essential point: It may be hard to pass climate change legislation by working with conservatives, but it will be nearly impossible to do so without them. In fact, no major environmental law has ever been passed without large bi-partisan majorities.  The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments all passed with lots of votes from both major parties.

No important legislation can become law without sixty votes in the Senate.  And I think you will search in vain for a respected political analyst who thinks there will be sixty progressive, pro-environment senators any time soon.  On an issue that doesn’t allow for the long game – as the atmosphere loads with greenhouse gases and the ice caps melt – we can’t wait decades for that super-majority to appear.

That leaves us two choices: act without Congress, or open a conversation with conservatives and move towards an approach that can get widespread support.  President Obama has already used his executive powers to limit greenhouses gases, including a clean cars rule and proposed standards for new power plants. We hope he will soon add pollution limits for existing power plants and policies to limit methane leakage from natural gas production.

All of that, along with actions by states like California’s AB 32, will be an important down payment on what we need to do. But in the long run it won’t be nearly enough to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.  Nothing short of a comprehensive solution to shift America to cleaner energy, and lead the world that way, will suffice.  And that means Congressional action.

Next: Why do many conservatives reject the consensus of scientists on climate change?

Posted in News, Policy / Comments are closed

Sequestration – What It Means For You, What It Means for Planet Earth

Now that the automatic spending cuts known as “sequestration” are here, we’re getting a clearer look at what it will mean for our environment. In these economic times, budget cuts are a fact of life. But these non-targeted, across-the-board cuts are likely to have real consequences for our environment:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will have to cut the funding it gives states to monitor their air quality.
  • EPA says it will likely have to shut down some critical air monitoring sites that check for dangerous pollutants like ozone and particulate matter.
  • EPA also says it will have to reduce the number of “environmental cops on the beat” – the people who monitor compliance with our environmental laws. They estimate they’ll do 1,000 fewer inspections this year. That means more polluters will get away with putting our health at risk.
  • Funding that was given to communities to repair or replace decaying water and wastewater infrastructure will be cut. That puts your local safe drinking water at risk.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will have to cut grants for state and local firefighters and other emergency management personnel. That will make it harder to respond to the next hurricane, tornado, or other weather disaster – at a time when those weather disasters are intensifying because of climate change.
  • The Agriculture Department says it will treat as many as 200,000 fewer acres for hazardous fuel because of budget cuts. That means a higher risk of wildfires.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will delay the launch of two new satellites that are designed to track severe weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes.
  • NOAA will also cut back on maintenance and operations of some its other weather systems — including the national radar system that’s used for tornado warnings. The Secretary of Commerce, who oversees NOAA, warned that sequestration will: 

significantly increas[e] forecast error and, the government’s ability to warn Americans across the country about high impact weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, will be compromised.

  • NOAA will also have to reduce the surveying that goes into nautical charts, which would put navigation – and the millions of dollars of commerce that depends on it – at risk.
  • Sequestration may force national parks across the country to close, or to operate with shorter hours. Reports say Yellowstone may open three weeks late to save money on snow plowing.
  • Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the reopening of the Statue of Liberty after Hurricane Sandy will likely be delayed.
  • Salazar and the head of the Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis, say sequestration will cut into their ability to staff national parks, fight fires, and clean up after winter storms.
  • Sequestration will force reductions in funding for fishery stock assessments, which will jeopardize our ability to open economically vital fisheries from the Gulf Coast to Alaska.
  • Sequestration also means fewer people to enforce laws against overfishing. The Commerce Department says they may have to compensate with smaller quotas or early closure to the fishing season.

All of the above examples are from memos written by agency heads to Congressional leaders about the potential effects of sequestration. There will undoubtedly be other effects – and we don’t know what they’ll be.

Of course, today’s budget issues pale in comparison to the financial disasters that loom ahead of us  – the amount we’ll have to spend to recover from stronger storms, droughts, and other extreme weather as climate change accelerates.

We’re leaving our kids a huge bill to pay.

Posted in News, Policy / Read 1 Response