Turn the Talking Points into Far-Reaching Action on Climate

The most important news of the week had nothing to do with celebrities behaving badly or who will occupy the White House after President Obama. The most important news this week is about the precarious fate of our species.

On Tuesday morning, the White House released the latest in a long line of reports documenting the increasingly severe threats arising from global climate destabilization (or climate change). The implications of climate change are particularly evident for our global food system, which is vulnerable to disruption and also accounts for anywhere between 30 percent to 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

The National Climate Assessment found that "most crops and livestock" will be affected in many regions "experiencing declines" in production from "climate change induced stresses." The report concludes, "Climate change effects on agriculture will have consequences for food security, both in the U.S. and globally... Adaption measures can help delay and reduce some of these impacts." (Emphasis added.)

Following the release of the report, the president sold the case for action to the American people. He did a series of interviews with local reporters from New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago.

This isn't the first time the president has issued dire warnings on climate. At this year's State of the Union speech, the president said:

Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.

The president's attention to climate change is commendable and he is often eloquent on the subject. However, too often he has failed to take active steps to address the crisis.

As the leader of the Executive Branch, the president has the unilateral authority to set agency policy. He should use that authority to address climate change under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA compels the government to conduct an environmental impact review before undertaking or approving major federal projects. With the stroke of a pen, Obama could add language requiring federal agencies to consider and analyze climate change impacts in these environmental reviews.

With this executive order, President Obama could make protecting our climate just as important as protecting our water and the air we breathe. If, for instance, the Department of Transportation wanted to build a new highway through a sensitive habitat, this policy would ensure that its impact on climate be properly considered. Such reporting would also give environmentalists information to act as informed public advocates in the process. Failure to conduct NEPA required assessments has resulted in courts ordering an agency to halt a project on numerous occasions, giving the law real teeth for real protections.

This isn't a new idea, in 2008, the International Center for Technology Assessment submitted a 65-page legal blueprint outlining how climate change could be included in the government's existing environmental review process.

Six years later, the plan is still sitting in a desk somewhere. In 2014, Center for Food Safety sued the administration for unlawful delay. The president need not wait for the courts or the Congress to enact this policy. He could simply act on it tomorrow.