The Moment for Urgent Climate Action

The Moment for Urgent Climate Action


This is the last in a series on the major policy ideas — from Left and Right — that should guide the next presidential administration's agenda. (For the opposing view, see Mark P. Mills, "The Path to a Bipartisan Energy Agenda.")


Our next president will take office at a time of growing global momentum for climate action. First, there was the historic agreement reached late last year in Paris, when all nations for the first time pledged to cut climate pollution. That was followed by new global pacts to control aviation emissions and phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a highly potent class of short-lived climate pollutant. An essential ingredient in these successes was American leadership, made possible by the bold steps taken here at home to curb carbon pollution from vehicles and power plants.

The new chief executive will have the opportunity — and obligation — to build on the strong foundation laid by President Obama.

The stakes are enormous. Years of record high temperatures, agricultural disruptions, and unprecedented storms, floods, and droughts are a clear signal that two centuries of carbon emissions have already begun to change our climate. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from 2004 through 2014 the U.S. experienced 86 weather-related disasters exceeding $1 billion each — with a total cost to taxpayers of more than $357 billion in the past decade, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Climate change has increased the number and strength of many of these events, and the trend will only get worse the longer we wait to act. If we fail, many of these impacts will fall unjustly on those least able to cope with them — and least responsible for causing them.

When we succeed, however, we will not only better protect our communities and our economy. We will create lasting opportunity and quality American jobs in a prosperous clean energy economy.

We Are On Our Way

The last decade has seen remarkable progress. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 9 percent since 2005, reversing decades of steady increases — even as the economy has grown by more than 15 percent. That points to the single most important reason for climate optimism: We now have the technologies needed to make deep cuts in pollution while continuing to grow our economy.

That is why it's not only environmentalists who are calling for action. Some of America’s biggest unions and businesses are speaking out along with civic, national security, social justice, and faith leaders. 

A Climate Vision for America

The cornerstone of any effort to tackle climate change must be rapid reduction of the pollution that is causing the problem. U.S. policy should put the nation on a path to reduce these emissions steadily by 2 to 3 percent every year and ensure we meet our global commitments to reduce emissions by 17 percent by 2020, 26–28 percent by 2025, and at least 83 percent by mid-century, relative to 2005 baseline levels.

There are a number of pathways to reach these goals, but they have three elements in common: leadership, ambition, and urgency.

The next president will face an enormous number of competing claims for attention at home and abroad. But climate cannot wait. Despite recent progress, we are unlikely to achieve the greater pollution reductions needed without quick action to put new policies in place. The pace of change in the energy sector remains far too slow. Big change requires prompt and sustained action.

The new Congress will also have a responsibility to act; we are strongest when we work across the aisle. Even so, leadership from the White House will be critical in addressing this urgent problem.

A Policy Roadmap for the Next President

In the first 100 days, the next president should convene the cabinet to focus on climate change and put in place an ambitious plan of climate action — a plan that will secure American leadership and safeguard our future.

Here are four goals that should guide that effort:

1. End the era of free pollution by establishing a comprehensive national climate policy that puts hard limits on emissions and requires major emitters to pay when they pollute. Today, big emitters are dumping their carbon pollution, and the cost of its impacts, on all the rest of us. As our climate becomes increasingly destructive, the bill comes due for emergency disaster relief and multiplying national security threats. It comes due to consumers in higher food prices, higher health-care costs and higher property insurance rates — and in the tragedy of communities under siege from climate-related extreme weather events. And the bill comes due to businesses — big and small — that have to deal with damage to infrastructure, agriculture, and supply chains.

Markets can be a powerful force for good, but harnessing those energies will require policies that are both smart and fair. Until we make major emitters pay when they pollute — and let them profit when they invest and innovate — we won’t spur the clean energy revolution we need. When polluting is the more expensive choice, companies will look for new options. Investors and inventors will have an incentive to improve further and deploy clean technologies. In order to be effective, any policy of this kind, whether based on new laws or the existing Clean Air Act, must ensure environmental integrity by building in safeguards that guarantee specific, measurable, and achievable emissions targets. After all, a carbon price is a tremendously powerful tool, but it is not the ultimate goal — emissions reductions are.

2. Drive significant reductions in global warming pollution to meet or exceed the nation’s 2020 and 2025 climate commitments, along with parallel measures to reduce hazardous local air pollution. There is much work to be done right away under existing laws to secure emission reductions in specific sectors. This includes maximizing the impact of the Clean Power Plan; pursuing new transformative standards for vehicles and industry; cutting potent methane emissions from natural gas systems; and modernizing grid regulations to remove outdated barriers to clean energy and consumer choice.

3. Work with Congress to incorporate climate change into major legislative initiatives. Climate change is not an “environmental issue” — it is fundamental to the American economy and the prosperity of future generations. Reducing climate pollution and increasing climate resilience should be core considerations of economic and domestic policy, fully integrated into budgets and legislation to invest in infrastructure, spur innovation, and strengthen manufacturing. This includes making infrastructure investments climate-smart and requiring a full accounting of the greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts of any significant new legislation.

4. Advance global climate action through U.S. leadership and diplomacy, including securing global commitments for strong action beyond 2025. U.S. leadership and climate diplomacy was critical to the climate successes achieved within the past year at Paris, in the International Civil Aviation Organization, and in the successful effort to amend the Montreal Protocol to cover harmful HFCs. All three agreements will require sustained attention to ensure success. The next president can also extend U.S. leadership through bi- and trilateral diplomacy, including with China and India as well as capitalizing on the historic alignment among North American leaders. Finally, the new administration will have the responsibility to establish the U.S. emission target for 2030 under the Paris Agreement — an opportunity to demonstrate continued leadership by putting the country on a path to zero net emissions later this century.

What the next president chooses to do on climate change will make an enormous difference for the long-term health and prosperity of our nation and the world. After an election that aroused so much cynicism about politics, progress on climate change would be a great win for our environment, our economy, and our democracy.


Fred Krupp is President of Environmental Defense Fund.


Author's Recommended Reading:

Susanne Brooks, “Ensuring Environmental Outcomes from a Carbon Tax,” Environmental Defense Fund (November 3, 2016).

Kate Gordon, “Risky Business: The Economic Risk of Climate Change in the United States,” Risky Business Project (June 2014).

Kevin Kennedy, Michael Obeiter, and Noah Kaufman, Putting a Price on Carbon: A Handbook for U.S. Policy Makers, World Resources Institute, (April 2015).

John Larsen, Kate Larsen, Whitney Herndon, and Shashank Mohan, “Taking Stock: Progress Toward Meeting US Climate Goals,” Rhodium Group (January 28, 2016). 

Erica Morehouse, “California’s Ambitious New Climate Commitments Follow 10 Years of Success,” Environmental Defense Fund (September 1, 2016).


(Read the response by Mark P. Mills.)

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