Is it any wonder that progress on global climate change has been so slow? As the University of Washington ethicist Stephen Gardiner has recently argued, nothing in human experience has prepared us to deal with a problem that has such far-flung causes and uneven and momentous effects. No one source of emissions is to blame: Global warming springs from many acts of energy consumption over many years in many places across the planet. And if and when the temperatures and the seas rise, the toll will fall on some nations (mainly poorer ones) more than others, while the costs of any policy to avert warming will be distributed differently and require present generations to make sacrifices for future ones. Scientific uncertainty complicates matters still further, as does the lack of strong global institutions capable of tackling something this big and complex. Add in massive social inertia, and, as Gardiner puts it, global warming amounts to the "perfect moral storm."
Perhaps, though, there's still hope. Despite decades of delay, the next president could still move us toward a solution before devastating climate change becomes irreversible. It would take an unprecedented effort, to be sure, both domestically and internationally, and require a vision and leadership that George W. Bush has never shown.
But if we get a president who is equal to the challenge, what exactly could he or she do? What follows is a roadmap for action -- for literally saving the world as we know it.
First the good news: There's momentum, finally. Thanks to Al Gore and others, global warming has gone mainstream. An issue that floated around the peripheries of policy-making for far too long is now triggering unheard of levels of media attention and a rash of legislative proposals. The presidential candidates -- at least the Democrats -- are now one-upping each other to outline the most ambitious climate policy. Emissions cuts of 80 percent by 2050? Bah, says Bill Richardson. I'll see your 80 percent and raise you to 90.
Even the Bush administration seems to feel the pressure. Although mixed signals continued well into 2006, it's no longer possible to argue that the president and his administration reject mainstream climate science. They've copped to the conclusion that humans are driving global warming, and so have many of the current Republican presidential candidates. Though not as gung ho as Democrats, even many mainstream Republicans see the need to address global warming, with big state governors Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Charlie Crist of Florida leading the way on behalf of their party.
So the time is right for a new president to sweep into office, define climate as a first-tier priority, and bring about a sea change -- at least a figurative one in policy to stop a real one in the oceans. The initiative should start with a major speech in the first 100 or 150 days in which the president calls the nation to a historic challenge and lays out a plan. Dealing with global warming will not spell the end of the economy, but there will assuredly be costs -- costs, that is, to avert even greater costs. We will be raising the price for some forms of energy use because they bring with them dire consequences (like the ultimate inundation of Florida). But by beginning to move away from carbon-based energy sources, we will also create many new economic opportunities, while also preventing intolerable and irreversible changes to the Earth. On any ledger sheet worth reading, dealing with global warming leaves us well in the black.
Even before the speech, the president will need to appoint a team committed to the endeavor. As New Hampshire's Carbon Coalition has outlined, that means an Environmental Protection Agency administrator, a presidential science adviser, an Office of Management and Budget director, and a Council of Economic Advisers chair who all know what's coming and are ready for it. It also probably means a high-level international climate envoy -- preferably someone with a household name. (Guess who.) Hillary Clinton has further promised to create a National Energy Council in the White House, parallel to the National Security Council and headed by a top energy adviser. The council would coordinate both the federal response to climate change and the necessary accompanying energy policies.
Whatever the structure of policy-making at the highest levels, the staffing mandate has to extend down the ladder and throughout the agencies. The Bush administration offers a model in reverse. It installed people in the disparate branches of the federal bureaucracy who excelled at censoring scientists and at keeping global warming off the agenda. The next administration must be staffed by people who understand and accept the science and are committed to getting to work on the problem. What will these public servants do? In essence, work through a two-step process. First, the new administration has to address global warming as a domestic matter through regulatory and energy policies. Second, but no less important, it has to address the problem internationally through negotiations. for many years, the United States has been the largest greenhouse gas–emitting nation, accounting for nearly one quarter of the global total (although, according to the International Energy Agency, 2007 may well have been the year that China finally surpassed us on that front). India and other developing nations are also coming along quickly on their quest for increased prosperity, claiming the right to burn fossil fuels just as the industrialized world has done.
As these trends suggest, solving global warming in the United States alone won't mean anything unless we also get other countries on board, particularly the most populous developing nations (which are not required to reduce their emissions under the current Kyoto Protocol). But we have to lead by example. While it's critical to remain engaged in each successive step of international negotiations under the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change, in the long term the next president can't hope to bring the entire world along if America keeps showing up empty-handed. Climate Policy Center president Rafe Pomerance, who worked on the Kyoto accord during the Clinton administration, says, "If you go in without the Congress having actually done something, the question is whether you can deliver. Having been through Kyoto, I wouldn't do it again."
The centerpiece of the president's domestic climate agenda must be the introduction of legislation that would finally set a mandatory cap on domestic emissions of the gases -- chiefly but not exclusively carbon dioxide -- that amplify the natural greenhouse effect and thus cause global warming. The cap can be relatively lenient at first, but should grow tighter over time, allowing for adaptation by industry and for the development of new technologies that will make emissions reductions less economically burdensome. The most important thing is that we finally escape from the current "tragedy of the commons" in which no one bears the costs for polluting the atmosphere.
The mechanism for capping emissions that has won the broadest backing uses the same market-based structure -- a so-called "cap and trade" system -- as the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments that reduced the pollutants responsible for acid rain. In this regulatory scheme, the government sets an economy-wide limit on total greenhouse gas emissions and then distributes allowances to specific firms and groups. Those who emit less than their allowance can then trade the remainder to others as they see fit. As a result, the mandated reductions are achieved economy-wide in the most efficient fashion.
Cap and trade isn't the only emissions reduction mechanism under discussion, but it has the strongest policy consensus behind it. A so-called carbon tax has the unfortunate word "tax" attached to it. And unlike cap and trade, a straight tax on carbon does not set a fixed limit on the volume of emissions; it merely assumes that they'll decline because they've become pricier. Perhaps most important, major fossil-fuel companies, including Shell, BP, General Electric, General Motors, and DuPont, all endorse cap and trade. Any politically feasible solution must have these powerhouses behind it.
Precisely how should the cap-and-trade regime be structured? Here's where matters get politically tricky, given that any cap will have economic repercussions as a result of an increase in energy prices. According to an analysis by Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, even the relatively modest bipartisan climate bill introduced in the Senate by Joe Lieberman and John Warner would decrease the gross domestic product by half a percent in 2015 and by almost a full percentage point in 2030. (Remember, however, that uncontrolled global warming will also imperil future economic growth.)
Global warming policy, explains American Meteorological Society policy fellow Paul Higgins, should be thought of as a form of "risk management" -- the stronger the policy, the less likelihood there will be of irrevocable catastrophe. That's why action must be swift and decisive. But if the policy advocated is too strong to be politically feasible and thus fails enactment, it could set back efforts rather than advance them. So it's critical that the next president take a strategic stance when it comes to the precise cap-and-trade system under consideration -- bearing in mind that the key thing is to get a sound policy foundation in place that can later be built upon.
Many Democratic campaigns, responding to their environmental base, are currently outlining cap-and-trade regimes featuring a highly ambitious 100 percent auction process for the initial pollution allowances or permits, with the proceeds going to other needed public policies, such as investment in the clean-energy technologies that must ultimately supplant fossil fuels. When it comes to specifying precise reductions, meanwhile, the campaigns generally seem to agree that we need something like bringing emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020 and decreasing them by 80 percent by 2050, through a cap that becomes progressively more stringent.
An 80 percent reduction by 2050 does indeed square with what scientists think would be necessary to avoid the worst climate impacts -- most notably, the loss of large bodies of land-based ice currently perched atop Greenland and West Antarctica, which, upon sliding into the ocean, would drive catastrophic sea-level rise. It's one thing to outline a policy in the abstract, however, and quite another to get it through the next Congress. As one climate policy insider says, "The environmental community has a tendency to run their leaders off a plank; that's what they're setting up right now with this 80 percent reduction by 2050."
The more moderate approach of the Lieberman-Warner bill is to reduce capped emissions (and not all emissions are included) by 70 percent by 2050. Lieberman-Warner is also pragmatic in another way: It does not set up a 100 percent auction for emissions allowances, a system that major emitters oppose. They think they should be granted allowances gratis at the outset (or as climate experts say, there should be "grandfathering"). Under Lieberman-Warner, just 24 percent of allowances would be auctioned off initially, though the percentage would increase over time. It's far easier to get buy-in from industry in this way, and although Lieberman-Warner may have a tough time passing both houses of Congress before the election (or surviving a possible presidential veto), it may be precisely the type of bill that can sail through in 2009.
What's achievable in climate policy seems to be changing all the time, but still we mustn't shoot the moon. Consider the perspective of Tim Profeta, current director of Duke's Nicholas Institute, who previously served as a chief architect of the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, which failed by a 55-to-43 Senate vote in 2003. "As somebody who fought for a freeze of emissions in the 2003 Congress and was told it was too aggressive, it is hard for me to believe where we are now," Profeta says. "The current movement to require 100 percent auctions and even deeper cuts faces strong political opposition from emitters, many of whom have good arguments about what is economically feasible for their companies. I fear that we might pass up the opportunity for real action now -- when it is essential to have the U.S. begin to reduce its emissions -- because some advocates continue to shift the objectives to stricter and stricter limits as the debate proceeds."
It's fine for Democratic candidates, at the moment, to answer the call of environmental groups -- the Sierra Club, for instance, has criticized Lieberman-Warner -- and present highly ambitious cap-and-trade proposals. But after the election, the new president will need to be flexible and focus on getting a workable bill passed. It can be strengthened later as more science comes in -- 2050 is, after all, still far away -- but we must at least begin ratcheting down emissions now.
The United States has never before regulated industrial greenhouse gas emissions, so getting a strong cap-and-trade bill through the next Congress may pose a considerable challenge even with a more moderate piece of legislation. Yet it's just a beginning. It ought to be accomplished relatively quickly and accompanied by other complementary domestic policy measures. These break down into two fundamental categories: 1) Investing now in deploying existing technology and developing new technologies that will make it possible to power America cleanly; and 2) Preparing to adapt ourselves to climatic changes that have already been triggered and cannot be avoided, due to the global warming that is already "in the pipeline," as scientists put it.
Global warming is, first and foremost, an energy problem. Beginning with the industrial revolution, we developed highly effective mechanisms for powering our societies, only later to discover that they have a terrible hidden cost that threatens to disrupt and destabilize global civilization. That's why we need large-scale investments in the research and development of new energy technologies -- a "Manhattan Project" for clean energy, on the order of $150 billion over the next decade. The money would flow to research on how to make renewable energy sources more economically competitive, how to make dirty energy sources cleaner, and much else.
Climate and energy policy experts agree that if there's any "low-hanging fruit" to be picked in this area, it lies with energy efficiency. We could be living and working in much more energy efficient buildings. Those buildings could be lit by bulbs that consume far less energy than the current, commonplace incandescent ones. We could be driving cars that get many more miles per gallon of gasoline. And so besides shepherding a cap-and-trade bill through Congress and directing an unprecedented amount of money into clean-energy technology research and development, the new president should also unveil a comprehensive set of regulatory proposals to ensure that we get the most out of the dirty energy that we're using and will use for some time to come.
Next comes adaptation, which has become something of a dirty word in some parts of the environmental movement, where it connotes capitulation to climate change. But "just adapting" is not what I mean. Let there be no mistake: There is no adapting to 25 meters of sea-level rise for the billion people whose current homes and cities would be swallowed up by the ocean in such a scenario.
We can adapt, however, to more modest changes brought about by global warming, at least if we have some sense of what they'll be like on a regional basis. And here arises one of the least known but most damaging scandals of the Bush administration -- the deep-sixing of climate change preparedness. Bush's appointees have undermined, at every turn, a Clinton-era initiative, known as the National Assessment process, designed to study the specific effects of climate change on different regions of the United States. All coastal areas, for example, must count on sea-level rise -- and must hope that climate policies can contain it to only a few feet over coming centuries. Meanwhile, other regions must expect a variety of other kinds of changes that have already begun to affect agriculture, the risk of wildfires, water supplies, and much else.
The first national assessment, published late in the Clinton years, endeavored for the first time to study and project what these changes will be. The Bush administration not only failed to follow up with a new assessment, as required under the 1990 Global Change Research Act, but actually censored references to the Clinton assessment out of government reports released by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.
Our next president, in contrast, must immediately revive the federal assessment process, so that communities nationwide can understand their risks and begin to plan for the future. Furthermore, as adaptation isn't merely about getting good information, the federal government should move to prepare for targeted adaptation measures in some very high-risk areas -- say, seawalls to better defend New York City. Here is something none of the campaigns are really taking about -- how even a little bit of climate change (and accompanying sea-level rise) makes certain disasters slightly more likely to occur, and how some of these disasters are so awful and inconceivable that we should be investing strategically to prevent them.
And thus -- if all of this can be accomplished in the first year or so of the next administration -- we move to the international arena. That's not to say that international negotiation cannot begin until domestic policy-making has been completed; this isn't a fully stepwise process. The United States ought immediately to re-engage in the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change process at a much higher level than at present, in the hope of establishing a post-Kyoto regime.
But there's more to be done because at least in its current incarnation, the Indias and Chinas of the world aren't even covered by Kyoto -- and it's their emissions we have to worry about most going forward. Joe Romm, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, explains the magnitude of the diplomatic mission: "The president has to name a high-level envoy, like Al Gore, whose sole job is to treat this like the Mideast peace process, and start one-on-one negotiations with all the big emitters."
The leverage and good example set in the domestic arena will be critical for bringing developing nations into an agreement to reduce their emissions. Explains Duke's Profeta: "India and China will never agree to a cap until the U.S. has already taken action. They have a very strong moral and equitable argument. While they are major emitters today, the majority of this problem is caused by emissions from the U.S. and other developed countries." In return for agreements on greenhouse gas emissions, the United States and other advanced countries also have to be prepared to offer developing nations aid in making the transition to a clean-energy economy.
Only when the rest of the world, like the United States, is also on track to dramatic emission reductions can we even begin to hope that the climate problem has been dealt with. And pray that global warming doesn't kick in faster and in a worse way than anticipated. Sadly, the more we learn about the climate, the more sensitive to disruption it appears. We will be very lucky at this point if we manage to get out of the mess we have created with only minor changes that we can (mostly) adapt to. And if we do achieve such a narrow escape, it's quite certain that we will have the 44th president of the United States to thank.