Five Steps America Must Take Now to Combat Climate Change

To prevent catastrophic climate change, the U.S. needs big action now.

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David Horsey

The government shutdown, even after it ends, will slow much of the president's second-term agenda items. Obamacare isn't the only policy on the political chopping block.  Despite reports by U.N. scientists and Nature researchers this month that the planet's climate is still warming, ice is still melting, seas are still rising and humans are still certainly to blame, the President's Climate Action Plan — which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions here at home, assist communities in adapting to the unavoidable impacts of climate change and increase United States leadership in spurring global climate action — is also getting stuck coming out the gate.

To its credit, the Obama administration, cognizant of congressional gridlock, designed its strategy around executive action, using powers already granted under laws such as the Clean Air Act. What we know, however, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that the U.S. must cut emissions more than twice as much as the president's plan, in a best-case-scenario, in order to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

It is clear that the U.S. must propose a bolder plan to position the world to hold a temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius, the widely agreed "safe-zone" that prevents climate catastrophe. The only way to lower greenhouse gas pollution in the near term and ensure deep cuts in the long term is through market-based solutions, which require Congressional approval.

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

President Obama realizes this. When he introduced his climate plan, he admitted that "we've got more to do," and declared that he is "willing to work with anyone to make a [bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change] happen," saying that climate change is a "challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock."

We could not agree more. For this reason, we are recommending the top five market-based solutions that Congress can implement to align our climate policy with what the world's best scientists say is necessary.

First, we must implement a Greenhouse Gas Fee that puts a price on climate change-causing emissions from all energy sources. This is the most effective single policy tool to fight climate change. Both parties, who are currently trying to tamp down our debt problem, should be pleased with the revenue-raising opportunities here.  This is money we can use to fund research and development, electrical grid enhancements, incentivize smart land-use practices and protect vulnerable communities from climate and price changes.

Depending on the design of the fee, implementing this policy tool could reduce overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 18 to 32 percent in 2020 and 50 to 95 percent in 2050, according to a new report, "The Plan: How the U.S. Can Help Stabilize the Climate and Create A Clean Energy Future."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the government shutdown.]

Second, we need to establish an independent, government-backed National Green Bank that will provide greater certainty for renewable energy investors at no net cost to the American taxpayer. Greater certainty means lower borrowing rates, which will decrease the price of clean energy. The Coalition for Green Bank estimates that a National Green Bank can cut clean energy borrowing costs in half, create more than a million new jobs and save more oil than we currently import from Saudi Arabia. Not unlike the National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, proposed by then-Sens. Chuck Hagel and Christopher Dodd in 2007 and later backed by President Obama in 2008, a Green Bank would ensure that America's energy infrastructure remains innovative, sustainable and resilient from petro-politics.  New York and Connecticut are already doing this at the state level. We must now do it at the federal level.

Third, we should increase investments in public transportation by $1.5 billion per year, which would double ridership growth, according to the Department of Transportation. Ninety-seven percent of U.S. transportation energy use is petroleum based.  This is unsustainable.  Further research and development of alternative technologies that would provide clean alternatives for the transportation sector — such as advanced batteries, hydrogen fuels, and cellulosic biofuels — is also necessary. The Department of Transportation also estimated that "if significant advances were to occur in battery technology" total transportation related emissions could be reduced by 26 to 30 percent in 2050.

Fourth, we must repeal the exemptions from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and other environmental regulations that put hydraulic fracturing at an unfair advantage relative to other energy sources that play by the rules. In conjunction with a Greenhouse Gas Fee, eliminating these loopholes will ensure that natural gas production is responsible for the impacts of its pollution and competes fairly with all other energy sources. The negative externalities associated with production — especially the climate impacts of leakages of the powerful greenhouse gas methane — must ultimately be accounted for by the industry.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Is a Carbon Tax a Good Idea?]

Finally, let's scrap fossil fuel subsidies. While not all of these subsidies are unnecessary (indeed, many low-income Americans rely on the Home Energy Assistance Program to help pay for heating bills), the most wasteful ones should be eliminated. This will have no impact on gas prices and will raise $40 billion of revenue over the next 10 years.

 More importantly, reducing our fossil fuel subsidies here at home will send an important international signal for other nations to follow our lead. While U.S. emissions won't decline substantially with fossil fuel subsidy elimination, there exists large reduction potential around the world should governments join with us and engage in responsible subsidy reform. We must lead the way.

The supposed counter-argument to all of this is that these policies will be too costly to our economy. While initial increases in capital investments are needed, the technologies required to transition to a clean energy economy are already becoming cost-competitive and energy efficiency improvements and new innovations will further reduce costs. When you factor in avoided costs from climate change damages (a 2012 study estimates that inaction on climate change will cost the U.S. 2.1 percent of GDP by 2030 — more than our current annual spending on Medicaid) it is clear that the cost of inaction is far greater.

President Obama's Climate Action Plan represents a step in the right direction, but we must acknowledge it as such. True climate leadership can only occur with the support of Congress. It is clear that politics is all that stands in our way—the technologies and policies exist to ensure a better future. By getting behind these five tools, the American people, and especially President Obama, can put pressure on our elected officials to transition our economy off of fossil fuels and send a strong signal to international leaders that we're ready to take on the climate challenge. What happens next is up to you.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Adjunct Faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. 

Matt Lichtash is a co-author of "The Plan: How The U.S. Can Help Stabilize The Climate And Create A Clean Energy Future."

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