Will Climate Change Chill Obama's Legacy?

Obama is the leader most likely to be blamed 20 or 30 years from now when people around the world are suffering from intense, diverse and irreversible stresses from climate change.
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Of all the issues Barack Obama will address during the next two years, none is more important to his legacy than global climate change.

Finishing the job in Afghanistan and Iraq, reforming immigration policy and bringing the economy back to health will be high on the president's priority list, as they should be. He paid special attention to economic recovery in his State of the Union speech last week. Much to his credit, he included a few ambitious goals for renewable energy in the United States.

He didn't mention climate change, however -- a slow-moving crisis that would almost certainly sabotage the achievements on which the president has invested so much time and political capital. Consider what is likely to happen if climate change goes unchecked:

Immigration: The United States is not immune to the problem of climate refugees. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton estimates that, depending on the severity of climate disruption, as many as 7 million residents of Mexico may immigrate to the United States over the next seven decades because of reduced food production. There goes control of our borders.

Health Care: Last September, the leaders of 18 national medical organizations and scores of state health officials wrote to the White House and Congress, warning that because of global warming "more Americans will be exposed to conditions that can result in illness and death due to respiratory illness, heat- and heat-related stress and disease carried by insects. Children, the elderly, the poor and people with serious health conditions will be most adversely affected." There goes Obama's historic attempt to control health care costs.

Terrorism: Defense and intelligence experts predict that climate change will destabilize many of the world's most volatile regions, producing new recruiting grounds for terrorists. "Well before glaciers melt or sea levels rise, global climate change will spur instability on a global scale, which will exacerbate many of the traditional national security challenges with which we are grappling today, including terrorism," according to experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. There go Obama's efforts -- and the enormous investment of American lives and treasure -- to defeat terrorism.

A Healthy Economy: Just the hydrological impacts of climate change will result in net losses of $1.2 trillion to America's GDP between 2010 and 2050, cost 7 million jobs and reduce real disposable personal income by $1.7 trillion, according to researchers at Sandia National Laboratory. We're already bearing high collateral costs for fossil energy consumption. The National Research Council reports that burning fossil fuels for transportation and electricity resulted in hidden costs of $120 billion in 2005, primarily in damages to people's health. There goes prosperity.

Energy Insecurity: We remain addicted to imported oil and vulnerable to the economic body blows inflicted by volatile oil prices. Oil price shocks preceded and contributed to nearly all of our recessions since 1947. There goes economic stability.

Because climate change is progressing so rapidly toward tipping points and because it becomes more difficult and expensive to mitigate with each passing year, Obama may be the last U.S. president with the opportunity to head off its worst damages. He is the leader most likely to be blamed 20 or 30 years from now when people around the world are suffering from intense, diverse and irreversible stresses. If that's hard to imagine, look at the extreme weather events and natural disasters in 2010 - the second-worst year on record -- and multiply them many times. Last year's fires, floods, mudslides, blizzards and drought, still underway in this new year, are evidence of what happens when weather variability and climate change combine.

The legacy issue -- President Obama's and ours -- is the central theme of the report released last week by the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP) as the president begins the second half of his first term. The report is the last of four PCAP has issued since the project began in January 2007. Overall, PCAP has provided hundreds of recommendations to the 2008 presidential candidates and the Obama administration on climate and energy policy, with an emphasis on what the president can do without depending on Congress.

The new report urges President Obama to become "the great convener," bringing together America's best minds to develop solutions to our worst problems. One product should be a detailed policy roadmap to a clean energy economy, including how all levels of government and civil society can collaborate to expedite our transition to post-carbon, opportunity-rich society.

PCAP also recommends that President Obama:

•Take the case for climate action directly to the American people and put federal climate scientists on center stage to substantiate the reality and seriousness of climate change;

•Develop national plans to deal with fresh water shortages, the conservation of ocean and coastal resources, and climate adaptation. A presidential task force now developing guidance for a national adaptation strategy should expedite its work;

•Champion the restructuring of farm policy when it comes before Congress in 2012. PCAP recommends that the Administration develop a 50-year strategy reviewed every five years to deal with a variety of agricultural and rural issues, including water conservation, soil restoration, and the balance between the production of energy, food and fiber;

•Push for reform of transportation policy when Congress considers reauthorizing it this year, advocating that federal funding give highest priority to reducing the nation's vehicle miles traveled;

•Go all out on Capitol Hill to defend EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases, as well as the many other powers past congresses have given to the Executive Branch to protect America's environment and natural capital;

•Make more use of Executive Agreements to reach deals with other nations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and developing clean energy technologies. Executive Agreements have the legal force of treaties but don't require concurrence by two-thirds of the Senate;

•Aggressively use the power of federal procurement -- civilian and military -- to build markets for renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. On the civilian side, the government's principal purchasing agent, the General Services Administration, procures nearly $70 billion each year in goods and services. Obama issued an executive order in 2009 that sets "green" standards for federal purchasing. Now he must make sure that GSA and other agencies have sufficient staff and resources to carry out the order;

•Use his authority to establish a "national security surcharge" on imported oil to help offset the costs of defending foreign supplies and shipping lanes. An analysis by Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress found a surcharge of $5 per barrel would raise $22 billion annually and increase gasoline prices by only 5 cents a gallon;

•Put substantially more pressure on Congress and the G-20 to phase out fossil energy subsidies as rapidly as economic stability permits and to shift those resources to clean energy technologies;

•To encourage more investment in renewable energy, push Congress to establish a floor on the price of oil. Also push for a ban on U.S. coal exports. America's coal industry is profiting today by helping other nations produce carbon pollution;

•Ask the Federal Communications Commission to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. It's unlikely that civil discourse will return in the United States while ideologues on both political extremes use public airwaves to spread inflammatory, one-sided and often inaccurate statements without balance or rebuttal.

There's another critical point to be made about presidential climate leadership over the next two years. President Obama has been reluctant to "get out ahead" of Congress on global warming. But the bluster from climate deniers in Congress is just that: bluster. The administration's responsibility is to carry out the current law of the land. I'll write more about that in my next post.

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