Ideas to Action:

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Views from the Center


President Obama’s inaugural address rehabilitated the words “climate change” from their election period exile. He won praise from around the world for devoting over a minute of his twenty-minute speech to climate change.

Now what?

Expectations are mounting that the President’s State of the Union will include a roadmap for specific actions on climate change, not just rhetoric (weary skepticism from some climate advocates aside).

The audience for the SOTU extends well beyond Americans, and this is especially true for climate change, since the effects, while global, are hitting poor people in the developing world first and worst, and the US, despite being the world’s richest and most powerful nation and the second largest emitter, after China, has been an impediment to action rather than a leader. (For a scary summary of what’s in store for developing countries if we continue with business as usual, see the recent World Bank report Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 Degree C Warmer World Must Be Avoided (PDF).)

Will President Obama press Congress for new legislation? Comprehensive climate change legislation has seemed DOA since 2010, but that hasn’t stopped Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) from launching a bicameral climate change task force or Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA.) from creating a “climate change clearinghouse.”

Whether or not Congress acts, will the president make fuller use of his substantial executive powers, drawing in part on the Supreme Court decision confirming that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the power to regulate carbon emissions, to push for rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions?

Here’s what I’d like to hear the president say about climate in the State of the Union:

  • “I will do everything I can to  ensure that the United States is a leader, not a laggard, in the global response to climate change.”

I hope President Obama will acknowledge that in order to lead in the international climate arena, the United States must adopt strong domestic goals and challenge others to match them. Rather than point our fingers at other countries (China) and insist that the US will only take aggressive steps to cut emissions once we have proof that others are doing the same, we should start a race to cut emissions. Let the US commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2020 if China promises to do the same, and unleash a competition to develop and deploy the technologies and conservation measures that will accomplish this. See my colleague Arvind Subramanian’s new book with Aaditya Mattoo, Greenprint, on how this could work.

  • “I urge Congress to pass a tax on carbon emissions. If Congress does not introduce legislation in the next three months, I will propose my own bill creating a carbon tax.”

President Obama should call for market-based solutions, invoke the popular principle of “make the polluter pay,” and urge Congress to pass a national tax on carbon emissions, an idea gaining surprising traction on both left and right. Even a modest $20/ton of carbon price would send a signal to markets to improve efficiency and invest in clean technologies. Among the proposals that would increase the political popularity of such a move are “tax and dividend” that would rebate all or part of the revenue to citizens, or an offsetting cut in payroll taxes, which discourage job creation. And of course, some of the funds could be used to address the deficit. Would a carbon tax pass Congress? Unlikely perhaps, but if President Obama does not throw his weight behind a carbon tax, there’s no chance it will move, particularly in the face of opposition by oil and coal companies.

  • “I am committed to using the full extent of the powers invested in me by the Constitution to address the threat of climate change.”

In addition to a legislative push, I hope President Obama will lay out how he plans to use his substantial executive power, as urged in a recent letter from climate action leaders in the Senate and House. In his first term, Obama negotiated stronger fuel economy standards with carmakers and backed carbon-cutting EPA regulations for all new power plants that make construction of new coal plants—a major source of emissions—highly unlikely. Moving forward, he could tell the EPA to require emissions cuts from existing power plants, not just new ones. He should mandate strengthened regulations by EPA and the Department of Interior to prevent methane leaks associated with fracking, a problem that some research shows could be as bad for the climate as burning coal. And he should reject, once and for all, the Keystone XL pipeline, which would accelerate exploitation of the vast Canadian tar sands, an extremely dirty form of fossil fuel that NASA scientist James Hanson has famously called “game over” for the climate.

  • “The United States will be a leader in finding creative ways to mobilize new finance to help poor countries become more resilient to the effects of climate change and to reduce poverty without rapidly increasing their greenhouse emissions.”

The US continues to exercise immense influence on the global stage. I hope the president will instruct the US Treasury to work with partners in the G20 and elsewhere to find new ways to mobilize urgently needed climate finance. The track record is not encouraging: one of the few things that both parties and the president agreed upon late last year was rejection of an EU plan to tax emissions from aviation. It seems only fair that those of us who can afford to fly—and emit large amounts of heat trapping gases in the process—pay something towards helping poor people in developing countries cope with the effects of climate change. Whatever the source, some revenues must be set aside to support developing countries to adapt to the ravages of climate change on their economies. See Nancy Birdsall’s and my suggestion as to how adaptation finance could be structured.

President Obama has many options for stepping up US actions on climate. An increasingly large and vocal US climate action movement (which will be highly visible just a few days after the SOTU at the Forward on Climate rally at the White House) will be pushing him to act—and will have his back when and if he does. Here’s hoping that in the SOTU we will hear President Obama commit to an “all of the above” strategy for averting runaway climate change.


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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.