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What the President Can and Should Do about Climate Change

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, he intoned: ” For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. … If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” Now the president’s science advisors, a group known as PCAST for President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, have offered some suggestions for what he can and should do about climate change—on his own.



First and foremost, the 19 advisors note that it’s past time for the nation to prepare for climate change, because climate change is already upping the odds of weather havoc like Superstorm Sandy. Whether it’s the challenge of flooding or extreme drought, the nation will require a more robust and resilient infrastructure, which means spending money on upgrading or just plain repairing the electric grid, bridges and tunnels and even water mains—much as the 2009 stimulus attempted. But it also means that the U.S. needs to invest in its weather prediction capabilities: both better supercomputers as well as more or at least replacement satellites.

The advisors also note that the U.S. is already reducing its greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, largely thanks to a shift away from burning coal to burning cheap and cleaner natural gas. In an ideal world, that shift would be accelerated by a tax on the carbon in fuels or a CO2 cap-and-trade system but Washington, D.C. remains far from that ideal. In the interim, the President should continue to encourage fracking for gas from shale, set new CO2 standards for power plants under the authority of the Clean Air Act, and boost efforts to develop technologies that can capture CO2 and sequester it deep underground.

At the same time, the Obama administration should lobby to continue, if not increase, the amount of money spent developing future clean energy technologies, whether better batteries for electric cars or robust heat pumps for geothermal power. In particular, because nuclear power is too expensive to develop without direct government support, it therefore deserves and “requires special attention,” the advisors write.

The President can also help enable clean energy and energy efficiency by revising rules from the Treasury Department on what types of projects get access to funding, requiring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to work with the Department of Energy to create programs that value energy efficiency investments as part of a mortgage, and encouraging the U.S. Congress to broaden and lengthen the tax credits for renewable energy production. In addition, a Quadrennial Energy Review—similar to the Quadrennial Defense Review that sets priorities for the U.S. military—could help focus and shape a coherent and stable U.S. energy policy, something that the country has never had. That is also something supported by the nominee to be the new Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz.

Finally, the Obama administration might reach out to Canada and Mexico to craft a North American climate agreement to signal the nation’s seriousness about international efforts to combat climate change. Bilateral cooperation with China should also be increased —via scientific exchanges, workshops and the like—to help the world’s two largest polluters to restrain the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming.

This blend of adaptation to the climate change already guaranteed as well as mitigation of the greenhouse gas emissions that would make global warming worse are “essential parts of an integrated strategy for dealing with climate change,” the advisors write. In the end, however, the President can only do so much on his own. A truly integrated strategy would require the U.S. Congress to get involved.

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Shoshin 6:28 pm 03/22/2013

    First off, he can do nothing about it as climate changes on naturally occurring cycles. Now that the taboo against questioning “man made climate change” has been soundly and irrevocably broken, more researchers are venturing out to say “PHHHFFT” to Al Gore and his ilk.

    Having said that, I’m quite certain that President Obama will not let science get in the way of a new comprehensive carbon tax. And once it is enacted, it will not be revoked. So all of you Watermelons out there will get your wish, big fat new taxes on everyone.

    Just pray that you aren’t among those who will pay for it all through chronic unemployment. As always, be careful what you wish for.

    And will this Carbon tax do anything for the environment? Of course not; it’s just another tax. Sorry watermelon’s Obama pwned you, but thanks for comin’ out!

    Link to this
  2. 2. MARCHER 7:37 pm 03/22/2013

    Shoshin,

    Never lose that tinfoil hat, and remember to keep up the GOP credo of always lying about everything!

    Link to this
  3. 3. geojellyroll 9:55 pm 03/22/2013

    answer: nothing and nothing. Exactly what he is doing now . Any thing he’s brought up is incidental lip service.

    The mantra of Obama and everyone else…growth,growth, growth. If there are more cars on the road tomorrow than yesterdasy, he’ll be applauding this. More housing starts…applauding this…bigger,bigger, more, more.

    anyone who thinks that the environment is a priority for most Demos or Reps is a naive fool. Now and then there is an exception but it is a rare ‘now and then’.

    Link to this
  4. 4. dubay.denis 10:12 pm 03/22/2013

    littleredtop,
    We hardly know enough about climate on other planets in the solar system to make any conclusions about whether they are warming or cooling over the past 50 to 100 years. So whomever was writing about it is making it up as they go along. You need a baloney detection kit if you’re going to browse the world wide web.

    Link to this
  5. 5. dubay.denis 10:17 pm 03/22/2013

    scribblerlarry,
    Care to share where you “found” the science. It wouldn’t happen to be the National Academy of Sciences would it? If not, you may want to check out the latest report by the country’s best scientists, see http://nas-sites.org/americasclimatechoices/sample-page/panel-reports/87-2/

    Link to this
  6. 6. dubay.denis 10:20 pm 03/22/2013

    Shosin,
    You refer only to two politicians in your comments, though you seem to imply you know a lot about climate change science. Do you know the names of any of the scientists who do climate change research? If so, could you share some links to their research that has informed your point of view?

    Link to this
  7. 7. JohnCervini 12:11 am 03/23/2013

    MARCHER,

    You supplied one sentence that we hear every day on MSNBC. Anything original from you ?

    Link to this
  8. 8. MARCHER 12:19 am 03/23/2013

    @9,

    I look for accuracy rather than originality.

    I know wingnuts just prefer the most inventive lie their echo chamber can provide them, feel free to head over to Faux News for that.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Owl905 2:23 am 03/23/2013

    The Anti-Science Syndrome crowd is, once again, dragging nonsense around. There’s no ‘solar system-wide’ warming. There never was. This isn’t the climate being the climate – it’s against-the-grain disruption and it’s snarling with increased occurrence and extremity. We’re already paying for it in jacked-up food prices, insurance premiums, and disaster-relief taxes. At this point, claiming it’s anything but a pollution-sourced consequence is about as scientific a little kid with his hands over his ears screaming ‘Shaddap!’ to make it go away.

    Link to this
  10. 10. bmcnew57 2:58 am 03/23/2013

    Had the emotional and unscientific liberals not gotten nuclear shut down in the 70s we would not even be talking about AGW. But no, a liberal follows emotions and a liberal’s emotions trump science every time. Nuclear power is very cheap if its not stopped by repetitive lawsuits from environmental quacks. Also micronuclear cost very little to get going. Nuclear from thorium uses no pressurized vessel and is even safer than most reactors in use today (which are very safe). But don’t tell that to the quacks who will tell you the colder weather is because it is warmer and expect you to believe it. When you announce its only science when it gets a finding of x, then its no longer science but politics.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Shoshin 10:29 am 03/23/2013

    Higher energy costs affect the poor disproportionately. Watermelons cannot seem to get their heads around this. A Wall Streeter may grumble that it costs an extra $2K to fill his jet but pay it and forget about it, but for a single mom on welfare an increase in subway fare may determine how much food gets on the table that day, or even whether the company she works at cuts her hours down.

    A carbon tax is a regressive tax as it hits the poor the hardest and the very poor hardest of all. I find it interesting that the Alarmist-Watermelons see no issue with that. Unless of course, their agenda is no narrow and blind that they don’t care how many kids get thrown under the bus so long as they can sip their lattes and use their “ethically sourced” palm oil lip balm.

    While of course, they jet off to Peru to eco-tour and shoot the class five rapids.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Shoshin 10:32 am 03/23/2013

    Marcher:

    I see… in your world because I speak in defense of the poor and the working poor I’m a GOP’er.

    Wow…..

    Link to this
  13. 13. gizmowiz 11:15 am 03/23/2013

    A President that will over spend $11 trillion during his 8 years will have out spent ALL THE PREVIOUS Presidents since our nation was founded shouldn’t be allowed to plan anything. If he did he would just bankrupt us just that much faster as he flunked Economics for Dummies.

    Besides change is the nature of the Universe and it’s the basis for evolution. No change. No evolution. No mankind replacement. And that’s the worst thing that could happen.

    Link to this
  14. 14. MARCHER 11:25 am 03/23/2013

    @16,

    No, your being a pathological liar makes you a follower of the GOP credo to lie about everything.

    And the only people you speak for are the fossil fuel industry and their tin foil hat wearing minions.

    For the record, Northern European countries with a larger government as a percentage of GDP and, wait for it, a carbon tax are substantially better for the poor.

    Largely because taxes, like the carbon tax, are spent on healthcare, education, infrastructure and environmental protection. But always remember to never let such lefty notions as facts and evidence get in the way of your fantasies.

    Link to this
  15. 15. geojellyroll 11:40 am 03/23/2013

    gizmowiz…so true. Folks just don’t ‘get it’. There is NO MONEY to spend on the environment. The cookie jar is stuffed with IOU’s. Debt is eroding the scientific infrastructure. There is NO money for the government to invest in any energy infrastructure. Everything is token nickels and dimes.

    Re a carbon tax…so what? Nobody with a brain thinks the Demos or Reps would support it. They have said NO over and over. some might think it’s god’s solution to everything but it AIN’T going to happen in the USA

    Link to this
  16. 16. sault 12:13 pm 03/23/2013

    #17 gizmowiz,

    You’re confusing spending with debt. You do realize that around 90% of the debt racked up in the last 5 years was because of the structural deficit and massive recession GWB handed off to Obama, right? Reality always has this bad habit of getting in the way of these ‘winger fantasies…

    Link to this
  17. 17. sault 12:18 pm 03/23/2013

    #15 Shoshin,

    If the carbon tax is used to reduce payroll taxes and lower the impact of higher energy prices through measures like financing efficiency retrofits, then it is the EXACT OPPOSITE of a regressive tax. And FYI, making silly strawman arguments and calling people “watermelons” makes it look like you’re not entirely serious.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Shoshin 12:25 pm 03/23/2013

    Marcher:

    Thanks for making my point. The eco-Alarmist Carbon Tax is merely a stalking horse for a President who wants to raise taxes. Even you admit that a Carbon Tax will not be spent on stopping man-made global warming.

    It’s just another tax and the President is using the cover, complicity and naivete of eco-groups to impose it. President pwns eco-Alarmists.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Shoshin 12:26 pm 03/23/2013

    Sault:

    You’re using the broken window fallacy. If a retrofit takes 30 years to pay out, it isn’t an investment, it’s a waste of time and money.

    Link to this
  20. 20. sault 12:30 pm 03/23/2013

    14. scribblerlarry,

    The “Science” and Public Policy Institute is a front organization funded by fossil fuel companies. The corporate cash gets cycled around through many groups like “Frontiers of Freedom” and “The Center for Science and Public Policy” to obscure the identity of the donors:

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Frontiers_of_Freedom#Exxon_Funding

    Willie Soon was their chief “science” adviser and we all know he was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to crank out bunk science for his paymasters:

    “U.S. oil and coal companies, including ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, Koch Industries, and the world’s largest coal-burning utility, Southern Company, have contributed more than $1 million over the past decade to his [Soon's] research…every grant Dr. Soon has received since 2002 has been from oil or coal interests.”

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Willie_Soon

    Yeah, so you think a bunch of fossil fuel propaganda hucksters is more reputable that the NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES?! No wonder you can blatantly DENY the MOUNTAIN of scientific evidence that climate change is real and that we need to cut our GHG emissions ASAP!

    Link to this
  21. 21. sault 12:44 pm 03/23/2013

    Shoshin,

    You don’t make any sense. Efficiency retrofits can pay themselves back in under a year to a few years. For example, switching out an incandescent light bulb for a CFL or an LED can pay for itself very quickly.

    For a 15W CFL that replaces a 60W incandescent that runs 8 hours a day…

    45W * 8 hours * 365 days in a year = 131 kWh saved EACH YEAR. Say you pay $0.10 a kWh, so you’ll save $13 a year for EACH BULB! These things are running around $5 or so. That makes the payback on a CFL around 4 months!

    And you have either a naive or intentionally cynical view of energy efficiency by likening it to the fallacy of broken windows. If we use less energy, then we can use the money we save on other things. Using that energy creates pollution, harming our health and reducing our productivity, so reducing this also increases prosperity. Finally, we’re feeling the impacts of climate already and it will only get worse the longer we continue spewing billions of tons of GHGs into the atmosphere. Over the long term, prosperity will be higher if we reduce emissions and prevent the ever worsening climate disasters that will occur if we just continue on with business as usual.

    Link to this
  22. 22. MARCHER 1:04 pm 03/23/2013

    @22,

    Thanks for making my point about the tin foil hat wearing denialist crowd being nothing more than a group of pathological lairs immune to facts.

    I admitted to nothing of the sort, I stated that carbon taxes in Northern European countries are spent on numerous things that both aid the poor and protect the environment (with quite a bit of overlap between the two).

    Thanks for demonstrating your ineptitude again.

    Link to this
  23. 23. dbiello 2:52 pm 03/23/2013

    Ok, people, I know this has become an emotional issue but let’s try to maintain the civility. Thanks.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Shoshin 3:02 pm 03/23/2013

    Sault:

    I’m all in favor of more efficient bulbs. However, things like solar and wind power make no sense. China’s largest solar panel builder recently filed for their version of Chapter 11. Even with slave labor and cutthroat business practices there is still no market for solar panels.

    In certain cases, sure, some things make sense. But should I sell my 2002 Suburban and buying a Smart Car? My ‘Burban gets 15 mpg and I drive it 4500 miles/year. Not much as it’s my third car. Total fuel: 300 gallons/year. A Smart Car gets 36 mpg (gasoline). Same miles, 100 gallons. At $4/gallon I save $800 year. Smart Car CAPEX is $16,000. 20 year payout. Not so Smart is it? And can I haul my 32′ Aerostream with it? And where do I put my kids (4) and their ski gear? No. I’d have to rent a truck, so there go even more savings.

    Marcher:

    You just repeated the same point again. Carbon taxes are sold on the basis of guilt and fear by governments who then divert the funds to other projects.

    I think you’re the one who needs the tin hat; you make a valid point and then can’t stand it so you have to disagree with yourself.

    Link to this
  25. 25. MARCHER 3:12 pm 03/23/2013

    @24,

    No, they are sold on the basis of recognizing negative externalities and the true costs of certain activities. Just economics 101.

    As for “I think you’re the one who needs the tin hat”, you also think every scientific institution of national and international standing has been involved in an iron clad, leak proof conspiracy for decades. So, I’m not overly concerned.

    Especially since you misinterpreted my point and then can’t stand when I clarified it in a way so simple even you finally understood.

    Link to this
  26. 26. sault 6:52 pm 03/23/2013

    Shoshin,

    Lots to unpack here. How in the world does a solar manufacturer in China filing for bankruptcy mean that the ENTIRE INDUSTRY “doesn’t make sense”? Funny that you talk about your Suburban…your CHEVY Suburban…made by this little company called GM that went through bankruptcy a few years back. Does this mean that the ENTIRE Auto Industry “doesn’t make sense” too? Gimme a break!

    And your vehicle comparison is a classic strawman argument if I’ve ever seen one. Sure, if the “Smart” Car doesn’t work for you, then get a car that does. Should you want to eventually replace your 14-year-old vehicle someday, really think about what you’ll be using it for most of the time. If you haul that Airstream maybe once a year or so and go skiing every other year, maybe you don’t need to lug around a 6,000lb behemoth getting 15mpg all the time to do it. Maybe you could replace the ‘Burban with a more fuel efficient option and rent one like you said for the 1% of the time that you actually NEED all that towing capacity.

    The version of the “Smart” Car we got in the U.S. was pretty bad to begin with, so you’re cherry-picking a really bad example. And since you drive this 3rd car a very low number of miles to begin with, the benefits of fuel efficiency are extremely downplayed in your example. I’ll give you a better example. I had 2 older cars, one that got 20 mpg and one that got 35. I got rid of both of them and bought a Prius which I drove for 20,000 miles a year for several years getting around 60 mpg average. If I had bought a car that was similarly equipped like the Camry or Chevy Malibu, I would have saved a little money, but the vehicle paid for that difference in fuel savings after less that 4 years.

    If you can just do without a 3rd car and rent a truck for your Airstream and skiing trips, you start making money right away. If you mostly drive around town and buy groceries with that 3rd car, think about what you REALLY need out of a vehicle before buying it. Really look hard at what’s available and just see what makes sense.

    Link to this
  27. 27. Shoshin 8:00 pm 03/23/2013

    Sault:

    Sorry, but my example is a real world one. Should I sell my ‘Burban and buy a Smart car? A Toyota doesn’t make any sense as I already have a car in category. My Malibu doesn’t haul sheets of plywood or gyproc either. Or my table saw. Or mountain bikes… or my kayaks.

    Link to this
  28. 28. Shoshin 8:00 pm 03/23/2013

    Marcher, you made everything as clear as the driven slush… as usual.

    Link to this
  29. 29. MARCHER 8:10 pm 03/23/2013

    And you demonstrate your need to blame others for your poor comprehension skills… as usual.

    Link to this
  30. 30. sault 11:07 pm 03/23/2013

    Shoshin,

    Whatever, buy the car that’s best for you. But you have different needs from most of the people I see using Suburbans as grocery getters or having full-sized pickup trucks as the vehicle they commute to the office in.

    Getting back to the main point I made that you failed to refute is that a carbon tax that lowers payroll taxes and funds energy efficiency improvements to lower its impact is not all that regressive. I have shown that efficiency retrofits work and there are thousands of other examples out there that reinforce my point if you bothered to look.

    Link to this
  31. 31. Carlyle 4:39 am 03/24/2013

    King Chanute was wiser. He scoffed at the sycophants who told him he could turn back the tide. He stood on the shore & commanded that the tide turn back to shame them. Obama will prove the sycophants wrong by spending billions of dollars to prove he has no influence on the climate.

    Link to this
  32. 32. greenhome123 4:49 pm 03/25/2013

    I believe the best thing Obama can do about climate change is to not call it climate change. I believe we should be doing cap and trade and other “climate change” initiatives, but doing them because they reduce air and water pollution, and refrain from calling them “climate change” as there is no controversy about the fact that fossil fuels pollute our air and water.

    Link to this
  33. 33. Carlyle 5:03 pm 03/25/2013

    Re: 32. greenhome123
    Yes. Build nuclear power stations. The one thing he can do to leave a record of good clean energy policy. But he will not. Easier to be populist & waste billions while continuing to increase pollution.

    Link to this
  34. 34. Postman1 8:50 pm 03/25/2013

    Sault, the UK has a carbon tax, yet over 5000, mostly poor have died of the cold so far this winter. The number one reason given is inability to pay for overpriced heating fuels. Just how are the carbon tax receipts being used to help them?

    Link to this
  35. 35. savvov 12:20 pm 03/26/2013

    To PCAST – before to solve questions connected with change of climatic conditions, it is necessary to understand precisely what changes occured in the past on a planet and why these changes proceed now. Accordingly, in what degree there is an opportunity to reduce negative consequences of changes in the future. The past of a planet includes: stage I – which last (many millions years) and which has ended with that the Earth (with inhabitants) appeared in Solar system. At call into an orbit of the Sun the planet has practically fused, II stage has terminated in that the escaped inhabitants of a planet now appeared on an environment of a planet (Ms), this environment of a planet during III stage repeatedly turned in an equatorial plane. III stage has terminated in that the environment of a planet in a zone of the Southern polar circle has burnt through. As the result a thermal stream of bowels has fused all ice (except for 29 million км3), the level of Ocean thus has raised almost on (500 м). IV stage began at an extraordinary mark of a level of Ocean which exceeded a present level on size (~ 15 м). For given time the thermal stream of bowels and a solar energy (temporarily) stabilized abnormal weight of an ice dome and a present (abnormal) level of Ocean. Thus, the objective estimation of events of the past will allow to predict events which will follow in a final phase of IV stage. Writing to the childhood skated on the river Dnepr at least (4-5 months), and now, begin on skates it is necessary to reach for (15 miles) in an ice palace in Kherson, so for the last (65 years) the climate in Ukraine change, more details on the site http://www.mammoths.narod.ru

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  36. 36. MickyG 10:37 am 03/29/2013

    One thing he could do tomorrow would be to issue executive order banning all subsidies for wood burning stoves and encourage all states to enforce Clean Air rules banning small biomass burners of all types. It is slowly becoming proven, what has been obvious for years, that the soot pollution from such devices is a massive part of global warming,. Indeed if the West banned these (utilizing smokeless coal as the immediate replacement), and subsidized developing countries switch to clean Diesel one estimate was that half of global warming could be avoided (probably not robustly proven, but it is certainly big). Simultaneously there would be a health benefit from asthma and fewer deaths from Cancer caused by PAHs and Dioxins. Large Biomass is OK as these are regulated.

    Link to this

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