A Climate Change To-Do List for the Next President

The stacks from the Gavin coal burning power plant tower over the landscape in
Cheshire, Ohio

Photograph by Ben Lowy/Getty Images

The stacks from the Gavin coal burning power plant tower over the landscape in Cheshire, Ohio

In the 2008 campaign, both presidential candidates called for comprehensive action on climate change through a declining cap on carbon. This time around, the economy has taken center stage; while Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have presented different visions on energy policy, climate change has largely been relegated to the sidelines. Nonetheless, the magnitude and urgency of the challenge have not diminished. If we needed any reminder of that fact, Hurricane Sandy should have provided it—especially coming on the heels of devastating drought, record-breaking temperatures through the spring and summer, and a record low in the extent of Arctic sea ice.

What follows are four steps the next administration could take to address climate change—including ideas being discussed by elected officials, nongovernmental organizations, and think tanks on both sides of the aisle. The big-ticket items, such as a cap or tax on carbon, would require action by Congress. Beltway insiders may counter that congressional action on anything, let alone something as politically challenging as global warming, is implausible. There will be plenty of advice to think small. And indeed the dismal record of the last two years suggests the next administration should be prepared for more gridlock—which is why this list also includes more incremental steps, such as extending tax credits for renewable energy and using existing Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate carbon pollution.

All the same, the next administration should start by ignoring the realists’ advice and aiming high. Addressing global warming will be politically challenging—but presidents are not elected to do the easy things, and political realities are not set in stone. The first step to tackling climate change is to start talking about it, not just once in a while but routinely, as a fact of life rather than a special-interest issue. The next president must build public understanding of the issue, connecting the dots between our own actions and the extreme weather we are already seeing. He must engage folks from across the political spectrum on the possible solutions. And he must be willing to spend political capital to get something done.


The most scientifically sound and economically efficient policy step is to limit carbon pollution via a cap or tax. A $20-per-ton carbon price—collected as a tax or by auctioning carbon allowances—would raise on the order of $100 billion per year while creating powerful economic incentives to curb pollution in the most cost-effective manner (and develop new technologies to do so). A carbon price is also an ideal way to help address the coming “fiscal cliff”: Using some of the revenue to pay for lower taxes on labor or capital would provide a double dividend by reducing distortions in our tax system. For that reason, a carbon price enjoys broad support from economists across the political spectrum, from N. Gregory Mankiw, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Arthur Laffer on the Right, to Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Jeffrey Sachs on the Left.


While reducing carbon pollution is the most important step toward sensible climate policy, immediate reductions in short-lived potent greenhouse gases such as methane and some hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) can slow the rate of warming in the near term, helping to avert some impacts of climate change in the coming decades and giving us much-needed time to make the deeper transformations in energy and land use that will ultimately be needed to stabilize the climate. The U.S.-led Climate and Clean Air Coalition, launched by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last spring and now including 19 countries plus the European Union, is an important start. But more needs to be done, both internationally and domestically. Here are two areas where the U.S. can lead the world:

First, address methane leaks from the natural gas supply chain. Since methane is 72 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 over a 20-year time frame, stanching methane leaks is crucial to capturing the potential climate benefit from substituting natural gas for other fossil fuels, such as coal in power plants or petroleum in vehicles. Smart regulations to address air pollution from oil and gas drilling will help, building on and extending the rules the EPA finalized earlier this year. By capturing valuable natural gas that’s currently released into the atmosphere, such steps also make economic sense, with payback times measured in months.

Second, phase out the use of HFCs used in refrigeration and industrial applications. Pound for pound, these gases are hundreds or thousands of times more potent than CO2. While they represent less than 1 percent of current global emissions, their use is growing fast, especially in such emerging economies as China and India. Best of all, U.S. companies are leaders in developing climate-friendly substitutes. The U.S. has rightly proposed to bring these gases under the Montreal Protocol, but we don’t need to wait for international action to begin phasing them out here at home.


The next administration should also continue to accelerate the shift to renewable energy sources and increased energy efficiency through a host of measures. That includes the removal of subsidies for fossil fuels, the continuation of targeted production tax credits for renewable power (unless superseded by a carbon price), increased funding for clean energy R&D, and support for the commercialization and deployment of innovative energy technologies. Passing Clean Energy Standard legislation, as President Obama has proposed, could be a second-best solution for the electric power sector if a more comprehensive solution (such as a carbon price) is out of reach.

More broadly, the next administration should help clear a path for private capital to invest in low-carbon solutions in the U.S. electric power sector by encouraging state public service commissions and regional power market operators (perhaps through a “Race to the Top” for the energy sector?) to eliminate barriers to investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy, and to level the playing field for demand response and distributed generation.


Finally, the next administration ought to use existing EPA Clean Air Act authority to its fullest extent possible. As a start, this means defending the clean-air rules already put in place during the last four years, including new fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks, limits on mercury and other hazardous air pollution from power plants and industrial sources, and more protective public health standards for air quality.

The next administration should build on these steps by setting carbon-pollution emission standards for stationary sources, including new and existing power plants. In doing so, the EPA can draw on a proud tradition, dating back to the Reagan administration, of making clean-air rules as economically efficient and flexible as possible—for example, by allowing averaging and trading so companies can meet standards on a fleet-wide basis rather than at each facility individually. The EPA should also design the carbon standards in a way that rewards states that implement their own rigorous programs—such as the innovative cap-and-trade approaches already in use in the Northeast and getting under way in California.

This is not all that needs to be done on climate change, by any means. This list does not touch on the critical need for smart investments in climate-resilient infrastructure—a need made all too visible in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy.  Nor does it touch on land use—an especially important topic from a global perspective, with tropical deforestation and agriculture accounting for roughly one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, it does not touch on the need for the U.S. to assert leadership in the international arena—not only at the United Nations, but also in such forums as the G-8, G-20, APEC, and the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate. Such leadership will be crucial for the concerted international effort that is ultimately needed to address climate change.

But leading is best done by example, and before we make major new commitments in the international arena, we must ensure that we can keep them. The actions outlined here would take us a long way toward that goal.

Nat Keohane is vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund. He was Special Assistant to the President for Energy and Environment in the National Economic Council from January 2011 to August 2012.

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