Obama Thinks Too Small on Climate Change

The president wasted an opportunity to lead on an issue of grave importance

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Global climate change got little reprieve this week from President Barack Obama's climate action plan, which was announced on Tuesday. Beyond the expected nods to renewable and clean energy, cuts to fossil fuel subsidies, vague references to international leadership, delegated direction to the Environmental Protection Agency for power plant emission limits and some statements about resilience and mitigation, there was little that was surprising. It is merely more of the same and most of it is safe. 

2013 is no time for a small pitch on things like power plant carbon parameters. We needed something big if America is to survive at all. While some in Washington think that the president's climate action plan is primarily positive and sets the stage for a carbon tax, others wonder why the White House is waging its bets on climate change so late in the administration's game, with little credit to cash in for anything legislative.

What the president did not do, but should have, was put a price on carbon, because it is becoming increasingly costly to our country and the world. Obama had the backing of his own National Research Council, which came out swinging this month for a carbon tax, suggesting that it was the only government tool effective enough to save society from rising carbon emissions and the concomitant climate change.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

The NRC studied the efficacy, or lack thereof, of tax credits, noting that the only tax credits that made a real difference in carbon reduction were the production (PTC) and investment (ITC) tax credits. The PTC and the ITC were the only tax credits making any kind of dent, albeit only a 0.3 percent reduction in carbon emissions, by helping public and private sectors switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Why Obama didn't do more is confounding. He had ample weather data and his own government agencies on his side, ready to back him up for a big plan to cut carbon emissions. Take a look. We recently breached 400 parts per million of carbon concentration in the atmosphere, a dangerous precedent in the slippery slope towards a carbon-consumed climate.

This news comes despite Obama's continued claim that we're making progress on reducing carbon emissions in the atmosphere. We're not. The only good news here is that the Obama administration raised the social cost of carbon, which estimates the cost of pollution to society, to $38 per ton from $23 per ton.

America also witnessed the hottest dozen years in recorded history happen within the last decade and a half, with 2012 ranked as the hottest ever in human history. Hundreds of cities all across America are witnessing record-breaking heat waves, recording temperatures never seen before in their recorded history. Backing up these trends, Science Magazine reported that the earth is warming much faster than we thought.

[Read Jason Koebler: World Bank: Global Warming Would Devastate Economy.]

In 2013, furthermore, the National Climate Assessment, the 13 inter-agency government body making up the United States Global Change Research Program, reported that a 10-degree rise in Fahrenheit was plausible if warming trends weren't radically reversed.

To put this in perspective, a two to three degree rise is considered undesirable but adaptable, while a four to seven degree rise is considered completely unsustainable. So with 10 degrees, forget about it, we're done.

Additionally, this year, the Government Accountability Office raised the level of risk associated with global warming to a "high risk" situation, on par with how it ranks Pentagon-related security risks. The GAO report noted that the government is completely ill-equipped to deal with the financial implications from climate change disasters, citing $80 billion in funds owed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the U.S. Treasury in less than 10 years of disaster response. And that doesn't even include the tens of billions of dollars from Hurricane Sandy.

Obama could've made this his legacy, and he certainly needed one in light of recent second-term disappointments on the National Security Agency and Internal Revenue Service fronts. Unlike those problems, however, which can be remedied more quickly with some serious government reform, a failure to truly fix global warming now sets the stage for inevitable irreversibility.

NSA email safety issues and IRS 501(c)(3) statuses will be minor, unmemorable issues at that point because the safety and the status of our society will be in critical jeopardy. The president's climate action plan does little to prevent that from happening. What a shame and what a lost opportunity to lead.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

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