What the President Can and Should Do About Climate Change

Scientific American

In Barack Obama's State of the Union address, he intoned: " For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. ... If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will." Now the president's science advisors, a group known as PCAST for President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, have offered some suggestions for what he can and should do about climate change--on his own.

First and foremost, the 19 advisors note that it's past time for the nation to prepare for climate change, because climate change is already upping the odds of weather havoc like Superstorm Sandy. Whether it's the challenge of flooding or extreme drought, the nation will require a more robust and resilient infrastructure, which means spending money on upgrading or just plain repairing the electric grid, bridges and tunnels and even water mains--much as the 2009 stimulus attempted. But it also means that the U.S. needs to invest in its weather prediction capabilities: both better supercomputers as well as more or at least replacement satellites.

The advisors also note that the U.S. is already reducing its greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, largely thanks to a shift away from burning coal to burning cheap and cleaner natural gas. In an ideal world, that shift would be accelerated by a tax on the carbon in fuels or a CO2 cap-and-trade system but Washington, D.C. remains far from that ideal. In the interim, the President should continue to encourage fracking for gas from shale, set new CO2 standards for power plants under the authority of the Clean Air Act, and boost efforts to develop technologies that can capture CO2 and sequester it deep underground.

At the same time, the Obama administration should lobby to continue, if not increase, the amount of money spent developing future clean energy technologies, whether better batteries for electric cars or robust heat pumps for geothermal power. In particular, because nuclear power is too expensive to develop without direct government support, it therefore deserves and "requires special attention," the advisors write.

The President can also help enable clean energy and energy efficiency by revising rules from the Treasury Department on what types of projects get access to funding, requiring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to work with the Department of Energy to create programs that value energy efficiency investments as part of a mortgage, and encouraging the U.S. Congress to broaden and lengthen the tax credits for renewable energy production. In addition, a Quadrennial Energy Review--similar to the Quadrennial Defense Review that sets priorities for the U.S. military--could help focus and shape a coherent and stable U.S. energy policy, something that the country has never had. That is also something supported by the nominee to be the new Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz.

Finally, the Obama administration might reach out to Canada and Mexico to craft a North American climate agreement to signal the nation's seriousness about international efforts to combat climate change. Bilateral cooperation with China should also be increased --via scientific exchanges, workshops and the like--to help the world's two largest polluters to restrain the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming.

This blend of adaptation to the climate change already guaranteed as well as mitigation of the greenhouse gas emissions that would make global warming worse are "essential parts of an integrated strategy for dealing with climate change," the advisors write. In the end, however, the President can only do so much on his own. A truly integrated strategy would require the U.S. Congress to get involved.

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