How Might History Judge President Obama’s Climate Plan?

June 27, 2013 | 4:14 pm
Peter Frumhoff
Director of Science and Policy and Chief Climate Scientist

The sweltering heat of a summer day in our nation’s capital makes for a powerful backdrop to historic statements on climate change.

Obama-climate-speech-blog-boxThis post is part of a series on President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

Almost 25 years to the day before President Obama mopped his brow in the summer sun at Georgetown University and forcefully laid out his administration’s climate action plan, NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen testified in the midst of a summer heat wave before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. There, he famously told the committee that heat-trapping emissions were already demonstrably warming the Earth’s climate and that global average temperatures would continue to rise if heat-trapping emissions were unabated.

Hansen’s June 23, 1988 testimony shines in the light of history. The early model projections he shared with the committee, showing how much further Earth’s temperature would increase as a consequence of human-produced greenhouse gases, have proven remarkably accurate. Decades of painstaking research have reinforced and elaborated our core understanding of climate risks and climate scientists now regularly communicate their findings and informed concerns to policy makers and the public.

Decades of continued and rising global carbon emissions have also greatly raised the urgency for a strong policy response to climate change, making President Obama’s renewed commitment to climate action so essential. It’s impossible to know, of course, how the President’s climate plan will be judged by history. But it’s reasonable to assume that future historians will rely on at least two simple metrics:

  1. Did the president follow on the Georgetown speech by vigorously engaging the American people in an ongoing dialogue about climate preparedness?
  2. Did his Administration move swiftly enough to deeply reduce heat-trapping emissions?

President Obama’s plan lays out a number of sound policy measures to prepare the nation for the impacts of climate change that we cannot now avoid — actions by federal agencies to better incorporate sea level rise projections into flood-risk reduction standards for federally funded projects, for example, and to expand efforts to better protect western forests, rangelands, and communities from the risks of catastrophic losses from wildfires made more prevalent by increasing heat and drought. But preparing our nation’s citizens to confront climate change will also require a dedicated, extended dialogue between communities, business leaders, scientists, and political leaders at all levels — a dialogue which the president can and must lead.

Drawing on the American public’s increasingly widespread experience with climate impacts already underway and key scientific resources, such as the forthcoming third National Climate Assessment that highlights how much the further impacts on key sectors and regions across our nation depend on how much we reduce carbon pollution, a forcefully led dialogue will do far more than prepare our nation to adapt to changes already locked in.

As the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) put it in their March 2013 climate recommendations, “an ongoing focus on preparedness… will help Americans understand that climate change is a clear and present threat, whose effects are already visible, expensive, and worsening (rather than a distant issue with impacts many decades hence. (It) will also strengthen the national constituency for the comprehensive approach to climate change — mitigation as well as adaptation — that is needed.” (Italics added.)

In his Georgetown speech and climate action plan, the President renewed the commitment he made in Copenhagen in 2009 to put our nation on a path to reducing heat-trapping emissions by ~17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. And his plan gave promise to achieving these reductions through strong, aggressively implemented EPA standards for reducing carbon emissions from power plants and other actions by federal agencies.

Achieving this 2020 target is an important first step. But far deeper reductions are needed beyond 2020 if we are to be on a path to protect future generations. In scientific terms, achieving the U.S. Copenhagen target of 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050 means transitioning to a clean energy economy that produces no more than the equivalent of 170 gigatons of carbon dioxide by mid-century.

In political terms, achieving these deeper reductions will require the full participation of Congress to establish economy-wide limits on emissions. And to build support for such a comprehensive approach to climate change in Congress — a Congress that has done so little to address climate change since Hansen’s historic testimony in 1988 — the president will need to heed the advice of his senior scientific advisors in PCAST and strengthen the national constituency for climate action by engaging the American people in an ongoing vigorous dialogue on climate preparedness.

Doing so will help ensure that this president leaves a legacy of historic climate leadership and future generations with a climate they can truly live with.

About the author

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Peter C. Frumhoff is director of science and policy and chief climate scientist at UCS. He guides organization-wide strategies to bring robust scientific expertise to bear on strengthening public understanding and public policies; guides innovative science and policy initiatives and post-doctoral fellowships; and serves as senior liaison with the scientific community, policymakers and the media.