U.S. climate policy

Climate Negotiators Open a New Round

A new round of climate talks opened this week in Bonn, Germany, with the ambitious goal of reaching a comprehensive legal agreement “applicable to all Parties” by 2015.

Countries agreed to launch the new round last December in Durban, South Africa, as part of a package deal that also keeps the Kyoto Protocol alive, at least for now. The so-called Durban Platform negotiations offer governments the chance to consider new approaches and—one can hope—commit themselves to meaningful action.

Since the start of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 15 years ago, there’s been tension between two competing models—binding targets-and-timetables vs. voluntary pledge-and-review. And in actuality, parties have now constructed both: the first in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the second in the parallel framework that emerged in Copenhagen in 2009 and was further developed in Cancún and Durban. 

From Dark to Light: Navigating the U.S. Energy-Climate Terrain

Keynote Address By Eileen Claussen, President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change
Institute of International and European Affairs
Dublin, Ireland
June 14, 2011

Watch the full speech

Thank you very much.  It is a pleasure to be here. I am especially pleased to be in Ireland just a couple of weeks after President Barack Obama paid a visit to his ancestral home of Moneygall.  I thought you would be interested to know that some of the President’s opponents, following the recent controversy about whether or not he was truly born in America, demanded proof of Mr. Obama’s Irish ancestry … and I understand he responded by finishing his Guinness and reminding his opponents that he is the only president to host a Beer Summit at the White House.

In all seriousness, I want to thank the Institute of International and European Affairs for inviting me to this beautiful city to talk with all of you about what’s happening in the United States to address the issue of climate change.

(Pause.)

Well, that about sums it up.  It has been a pleasure speaking with you and, if you will pardon me, I will now get along with my sightseeing.

I am kidding, of course. Well, let me clarify that. I am kidding about being through with my remarks, but the notion that not a lot is happening on this issue in the United States is no joke.  The renowned Irish blessing calls for the winds to be always at your back; the sun to shine warm upon your face; and rains to fall soft upon your fields. Well, for those of us who care about this issue and who want to see the United States take its rightful role in protecting the climate, it seems like the wind has not actually been at our back – but rather hitting us squarely in the face for quite some time now.

Any time you have someone winning an election to the United States Senate, as we did in November, thanks in part to a campaign ad where he uses a rifle to shoot a hole through a piece of paper representing climate change legislation, I guess you could be forgiven for feeling, well, not sufficiently blessed.

For perspective, let’s look back for a moment at what was happening on this issue in the United States just two years ago.  President Obama was just months into office after an election campaign during which he had pledged to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases by 80 percent before mid-century, and during which he promised to invest tens of billions of dollars in new climate-friendly energy technologies. 

As his secretary of energy, the President appointed a Nobel Prize winner who supported strong action to address climate change. And he built an all-star team of advisers on environment and energy issues who felt the same way.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives, just two years ago this month, passed comprehensive climate change legislation that established national limits on U.S. emissions and that authorized a new trading program to help industries meet their targets as efficiently as possible.

It was indeed a heady time for those of us who have labored on this issue over the past two decades and more.  We definitely felt as though we had the wind at our back.  But now it all seems like a distant dream … there is no getting around the fact that 2010 was a dark time for those of us who believed that the United States was on the precipice of taking serious action. 

So today, I will spend my time talking with you about why I believe things have changed so dramatically in so short a time.  But I also want to point to some signs of hope. William Butler Yeats once wrote, “When one looks into the darkness there is always something there.” And I believe this is an insight we should remember, no matter how dark things may appear to be at the present time.

John McCain joked once in a different context that it’s always darkest before the light goes completely out. (Pause.) Which is very funny – but also somewhat depressing.  In my remarks today, I intend to look into the present darkness and reflect on some of the reasons why things are so dark right now.  But I also will point out that indeed, there is “something there.”

Let us start with a closer look at why it has grown so gloomy (for some) in Washington.  In the two years since the House of Representatives voted on the so-called “cap-and-trade” legislation in June 2009, the opposition to climate action has gained the upper hand in the debate.  The 2010 U.S. elections last November brought an astonishing number of new members to Congress who publicly disavowed the science of climate change. In fact, shortly after the election, a U.S. think tank conducted a comprehensive review of the policy positions and statements of more than 100 incoming Republican members of Congress. It found that more than half of them — I repeat: more than half —are skeptics of climate change. They say they are not sure it’s really happening.  Remember: This is in the majority party that controls the legislative agenda in the U.S. House of Representatives.

So if anyone tells you that serious congressional action on this issue is possible in the next two years, I hope you will politely tell them they’re crazy.  It’s not going to happen. 

And it is not just the presence of a large number of climate skeptics that make it improbable that the current U.S. Congress will do anything.  As always in Washington, there are a range of other issues and other interests at play.  In the wake of President Obama’s effort to overhaul the U.S. health care system, for example, there is a pronounced distaste in our nation’s capital and throughout the United States for policies that could be branded as quote-unquote “big government” solutions.

We can do our level best to try and help people understand how a cap-and-trade approach leaves it to the market (and not government) to find the most efficient ways to reduce emissions, but opponents inevitably will turn this into an issue of government overreach.  And in the current political climate in the United States, attacking things in this manner is a strategy that seems to work.

There is also of course the economy – a seemingly unending challenge with which I know all of you are familiar. You understand how unemployment rates can color every political decision.  In the U.S., unemployment hovers at or near the 9 percent mark, causing members of Congress to feel their own jobs are at risk to the extent that they embrace policies that could be construed as being anti-business or, worse, “anti-jobs.”  The President’s health care law regularly is referred to as a quote-unquote “job killing,” “job destroying” or “job crushing” initiative. This is how you attack your opponents in Washington today. You accuse them of wanting to take away people’s jobs. And, once again, this is a strategy that seems to work, even if it can be argued that addressing climate change in a serious way will actually create new jobs in clean energy and related industries. 

Unfortunately, it gets even worse.  Not content merely to block legislation that could strengthen or expand U.S. efforts to address climate change, many in the House of Representatives are pursuing a strategy of trying to eliminate or curtail existing policies and programs related to this issue, however modest they may be. 

Earlier this year, the House passed a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. Ironically, this measure could have been nicknamed the “Kill Government” bill for its drastic cutbacks. While fiscal realities demand cuts to a wide range of vital federal programs, the House plan disproportionately cut funding for the climate science and clean energy programs needed to transition to the robust clean-energy economy that many businesses and the public support.

Thankfully, the U.S. Senate had its say, and the spending bill the President eventually signed into law avoided total annihilation of federal climate initiatives. While the most aggressive efforts by Congress to strip the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of its funding and authority to act on climate and clean energy may not have passed, many politically-contentious issues lie ahead that may present more hurdles for EPA. For instance, debates this summer over the U.S. debt ceiling and battles over the 2012 budget could again put EPA in the crosshairs. Many Republicans, especially in the House, are likely to stay vigilant in their anti-climate efforts.

But under our bicameral legislative system, the House does not have the last word in these matters.  The Senate, however, presents its own challenges, starting with an arcane set of rules that allows a minority of senators to block major legislation. The Democrats are in the majority in the Senate, but they don’t have the 60 votes they need to pass anything major on climate change or other big issues.  What’s more, the Democrats themselves remain divided on the climate issue, with senators from oil- and coal-producing states often siding with Republicans to block proposals that could be portrayed as trying to change the prevailing, high-carbon energy mix in the United States. 

Looking ahead, things could get worse before they get better.  The period after the November 2012 elections could be the next best chance for the United States to do something serious on the climate issue. But if the House remains majority Republican, or the Senate falls into Republican hands, the chance will probably be lost for another two years or more.

So, it’s a little dark in Washington at the moment and it is hard to see how anything substantive or serious can happen on the climate issue under the current Congress. Indeed, the challenge right now is to prevent Congress from endangering the mostly modest initiatives and programs that are in place right now to address this issue, and on which we can potentially build a more robust response in the future under friendlier leadership.

Which brings me to the shadows of hope we can see if we follow the advice of Mr. Yeats and look into the darkness. The first of these appears when we look at what’s happening at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the federal agency that is responsible for carrying out many U.S. laws related to climate change and the environment. 

With Congress unable to pass comprehensive climate legislation in 2010, attention turned to what the EPA might be able to do under the agency’s existing authority. And it turns out the EPA can do a great deal.  One of the reasons why it can do a great deal is because the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 decided that greenhouse gases meet the definition of pollutants under the Clean Air Act.  This is the omnibus federal clean air law that was originally passed in the 1970s and has been amended and expanded several times since.

In its 2007 ruling, the Supreme Court left it to the EPA to decide if emissions of greenhouse gases present a risk to public health and welfare. EPA decided they did, based on the overwhelming scientific evidence about the enormous risks that climate change poses to America and the world. Interestingly, we recently learned that the previous EPA Administrator under President George W. Bush came to exactly the same conclusion … and other senior Bush administration officials agreed.  So when opponents of the EPA decision on greenhouse gases inevitably painted it as a partisan attempt to expand government, well, let’s just say that their arguments seemed a tad partisan themselves.

What is the EPA doing to try and limit U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases? National standards for passenger cars and light-duty trucks that won approval from industry and environmentalists will increase fuel efficiency to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 and save consumers $3,000 over a vehicle’s lifetime. A new EPA proposal to be finalized next year aims to increase fuel efficiency by another 3 to 6 percent per year through 2025. In late October, the agency announced a sensible proposal to reduce emissions by 20 percent and improve fuel efficiency for medium and heavy-duty vehicles.  This was followed by a November announcement that will go a long way to making sure that new industrial facilities in the United States use state-of-the-art technologies to boost efficiency and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. And later this year, EPA is expected to propose the first-ever greenhouse gas standards for new and existing power plants and oil refineries.

Of course, opponents of these and other reasonable EPA actions will continue to raise a ruckus, and there have already been loud cries in Congress to take away the agency’s regulatory authority and cut its funding, as I already discussed. But the fact remains that, even though its efforts are relatively mild and will not come close to achieving the broader reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that President Obama promised during his election campaign, EPA is still in the fight and is still putting forward reasonable rules and regulations for reducing the U.S. contribution to climate change.  And that is an encouraging thing to see as we take in an otherwise dark scene. 

It is also important to take notice of action actually taking place on the ground that has climate benefits. Most notably, we expect many old coal plants to shut down. While some new coal plants will come online soon, we are far more likely to see new natural gas power plants built in the future. While not “The Answer” to our climate and energy challenges, natural gas emits half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal. So this shift to natural gas, largely driven by regulations of conventional pollutants and by discoveries of shale gas that make natural gas more cost-competitive, will certainly help keep the U.S. on the downward emissions pathway that we’ve experienced in recent years. Of course, achieving bigger, brighter changes in how we produce and consume energy will ultimately require new policies, technological innovation, and broad public support.

Another shadow of hope that we can see if we look hard into the current darkness is that President Obama continues to talk about energy issues in a way that is helpful for the climate.  Yes, he recently proposed to expand drilling for oil in the United States, but he continues to frame the nation’s energy challenge (and, indeed, the world’s) as a challenge that we can meet only through an all-of-the-above energy policy that reserves a vital role for low-carbon, clean-energy sources in meeting our energy needs in the decades to come. Obama’s rhetorical commitment to climate action was again heard in his speech before the British Parliament last month, when he grouped climate change as one of the world’s principle threats to confront along with terrorism, nuclear proliferation, famine and disease.

Looking ahead to the 2012 U.S. presidential election, we can even see a faint shadow of hope (I emphasize it’s a faint one) in the histories of the leading Republican candidates for President.  A number of the leading Republican candidates (including former state governors Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) have in the past supported cap-and-trade policies.  Of course, they wouldn’t admit it now even under enhanced interrogation techniques.

But these men who are running for President on the Republican side are not your classic climate change deniers.  In fact, some of them still agree that the science of climate change is real, although they are not supporting any real action to deal with it.  I know this does not sound like much … but the fact is that these candidates will find it hard to make climate change a polarizing issue in the 2012 election given their records and past statements on the issue – and that is a good thing. 

Of course, if former Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska or another out-and-out climate change skeptic runs for President on the Republican side, then this might change.  And I expect the well-funded, highly-influential Tea Party movement to continue to mislead the public about the science and hold up climate action as a prime example of government run amuck. But in all honesty, I am not sure that running on a climate-change-denial platform is smart politics in America today.  I am convinced from a review of the polls that the majority of the American people actually support reasonable action to develop clean energy sources and take other steps to create a low-carbon economy. 

According to various credible surveys, a majority of Americans (about 60 percent) believe global warming or climate change is happening. It is important to note, however, that these numbers have trended down in recent years in sync with the recession and with the increasing political battles over climate change policy and well-funded attacks on climate science. 

One of the more interesting public opinion surveys on this topic is the so-called “Six Americas” study by Yale and George Mason universities. The project’s researchers identified six distinct subsets of the U.S. population based on their beliefs about climate change.  The six categories are: Alarmed; Concerned; Cautious; Disengaged; Doubtful; and Dismissive.  (Add the name Grumpy and you could have the climate change version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.)

Interestingly, majorities in all six of these groups said they believe the United States should make it a priority to develop clean sources of energy.  Regulating carbon dioxide emissions was supported by a majority of each group except the Dismissive.  (Nobody asked Grumpy what he thought.)  So it’s obvious that a significant portion of the U.S. population supports policies that directly or indirectly would result in reduced emissions of greenhouse gases. 

Where support for these policies begins to decline is where researchers ask Americans what they are willing to pay to achieve these goals.  But still, public support for clean energy (and, to a lesser extent, regulating greenhouse gas emissions) is certainly a hopeful thing we can see as we look into the darkness in the United States on this issue today. And the reason why it is so hopeful is because it suggests to me that the current stalemate on this issue cannot last, especially in the face of continuing extreme weather events such as the recent flooding of the Mississippi River and Texas wildfires that have ravaged nearly 3 million acres.

These are exactly the kinds of events that climate scientists keep warning us will become more frequent in a warming world, and these types of extreme weather events inevitably raise serious questions in people’s minds about whether warming global temperatures are already wreaking havoc with the climate.  

So far, I have talked mostly about national politics in the United States, but it is important to remember that in the U.S. political system, states have an enormous degree of authority and flexibility to advance climate solutions and other policies on their own.  And the good and hopeful news is that many U.S. states have banded together in recent years to launch regional initiatives aimed at reducing emissions and developing clean energy.  This is in addition to individual states acting on their own on these issues. 

The not-so-good news is that state actions on the climate issue suffered a bit of a setback last November.  As was the case with the U.S. congressional elections, the 2010 gubernatorial elections brought to the nation’s statehouses a group of new leaders who adopted strong stands against climate action in their campaigns. This is already setting back some of the progress we were seeing at the state level on this issue in recent years.  For example, New Jersey’s new governor, Chris Christie, who is a rising star in the Republican Party, announced last month that he would withdraw his state from a very promising regional climate initiative that includes 10 northeastern U.S. states. While Gov. Christie said he accepts the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and humans play a role, he follows the standard Republican position of opposing policy action, specifically cap and trade.

But there is still hope among the states.  During the November election, for example, voters in California overwhelmingly rejected a measure aimed at curtailing the state’s nascent efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Shortly after that vote, the California Air Resources Board formally approved the state’s cap-and-trade program, which is designed to reduce California emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. A lawsuit by environmental activists opposed to cap and trade challenged the regulations on procedural grounds and may prevent the state from implementing its program on time. But the good news is California is still in the fight. And there is strong public support for what the state wants to do. California Gov. Jerry Brown also has signed into law one of the nation’s most aggressive renewable electricity standards. It requires 33 percent of the state’s electricity be produced by renewable sources by 2020.

Of course, California, as a relatively progressive state,will always provide a more hospitable climate for action on this issue. But the fact that the most highly populated U.S. state will soon be implementing a cap-and-trade system and other measures to reduce emissions has to be a positive sign.

Internationally, the Cancún climate talks showed that there are opportunities for incremental, evolutionary progress in the global negotiations on key operational issues of finance; measurement, reporting and verification; adaptation; technology; and forestry. It is important to understand that progress on these issues does not require a new legal agreement. Each of them can be advanced in tangible ways by decisions of the Parties. That is exactly what was achieved in Cancún. The Cancún Agreements are a package of decisions by the Parties. And what that package does, in large measure, is to import the essential elements of the Copenhagen Accord into the UN climate system and take initial steps to implement them.

What this represents is incremental progress – evolutionary progress – the kind of progress that had eluded us for years because we were so preoccupied with legally-binding outcomes. So we were able to move forward in Cancún on operational issues. But we were able to do so – and this is an important point – only because Parties were willing to put aside their differences on the legal issues.

I encourage the talks this year in Durban, South Africa to build on the effective, incremental approach taken in Cancún. Because the reality is that the U.S. cannot make global commitments until there is stronger consensus for action at home. And even apart from the situation in the U.S., the reality is that few if any developed countries will take on new binding commitments unless China and other emerging economies do as well. For now, we must look to coalitions of the willing to make progress in key areas, such as renewable energy and forest protection. While maintaining the international process is key to working toward the ultimate, longer-term goal of a global climate agreement with legally-binding commitments, actions taking place on the ground in individual countries right now are the most important signs of progress.

The last shadow of hope – and perhaps the most important one – that I want to talk about is the fact that there remains a strong core of business support for reasonable action on the climate issue in the United States.  The Pew Center’s Business Environmental Leadership Council includes 46 major corporations that support mandatory, market-based approaches to tackle climate change.

Starting with 13 companies in 1998, our Business Council is now the largest U.S.-based association of corporations focused on addressing the challenges of climate change and supporting mandatory climate policy. It includes mostly Fortune 500 companies with combined revenues of over $2.5 trillion and over 4.5 million employees. Many different sectors are represented, from high technology to diversified manufacturing; from oil and gas to transportation; from utilities to chemicals.

While individual companies hold their own views on policy specifics, they are united with the Pew Center in the belief that voluntary action alone will not be enough to address the climate challenge.  The bottom line: Business support for climate solutions is surely a hopeful sign amid the present darkness … and it is yet another factor that suggests to me that the current situation can’t last for long.

I would like to end my remarks by drawing your attention to something that will happen today in the United States that, at least on the surface, appears to have very little to do with the subject of my remarks.  On 42nd Street in New York City, at the Foxwoods Theater, a new rock musical based on the Spiderman comics with music and lyrics by U2’s Bono and The Edge has its official opening after several months of delays and various catastrophes along the way. 

Just months ago, many people wondered if it would ever open, given that it was way over budget and that it had gone through a number of cast changes, script rewrites and more.  The low point came when a stunt performer fell more than 20 feet to the stage after a cable snapped on the harness that held him aloft.  Fortunately, he was released from the hospital and is OK, and despite mixed reviews, ticket sales for the production have been, well, phenomenal.

I bring up the opening of the Spiderman musical because it’s a reminder that even when things are at their darkest, there can still be hope for success.  I also bring it up because of the title of the production.  It is called Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark

Yeats told us, “When one looks into the darkness there is always something there.”  And right now, as I have said, we can indeed see shadows of hope in the darkness that has descended on the climate change debate in the United States. When we will be able to turn off the dark, I cannot say.  But I believe it can happen in due time. 

Now perhaps we can turn up the lights for some questions … Thank you very much.

Eileen Claussen addresses the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin, Ireland.

Post-Partisan Power?

A new report, Post-Partisan Power, puts forth several interesting ideas for how the United States can accelerate technological progress to advance U.S. energy security and global climate protection. The authors are Steven F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution, and Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute. The report has created a buzz, in part because of the “man bites dog” nature of the story – Brookings and AEI agree on something! And they are saying “post-partisan” out loud in these hyper-partisan times.

The authors recommend a number of initiatives that ought to be no-brainers – invest more in energy science and education, overhaul the energy innovation system by increasing funding for the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and developing regional energy innovation centers, reform energy subsidies, use military procurement and competitive deployment to drive innovation and price declines, and pay for all this through a very small carbon tax or electricity fee. The major critique of the report, best articulated by Harvard economist Rob Stavins, is that these recommended steps are necessary but not sufficient – i.e., it is all very well for the government to invest in these technologies, but we also need to create a market for them through a strong carbon price or serious greenhouse gas reduction requirements. 

The authors have responded that they didn’t mean to imply that their recommendations include all we need to solve our energy and climate problems. However, their subtitle, “How a limited and direct approach to energy innovation can deliver clean, cheap energy, economic productivity and national prosperity,” makes it sound an awful lot like they did. And their opening critique of “both sides of the debate” on climate and energy is dismissive of pricing in general and cap and trade in particular – noting, for example, cap and trade’s defeat in the Senate but not its victory in the House, and saying pricing has not succeeded in reducing emissions in Europe, when in fact it has. But let’s set that aside for the moment. 

The more intriguing question this report raises for me is why the energy and climate debate is so stuck and why even the modest proposals described in “Post-Partisan Power” face an uphill battle. 

The report’s authors lament our irrational energy subsidies and dysfunctional federal support system for energy innovation, and I agree substantively with their critique and their proposed fixes. But this irrationality and dysfunctionality have persisted for a long time. Each energy source has a powerful constituency for federal subsidies and tax breaks. And for each DOE lab in the current national network that does most of our federal energy research, powerful regional interests protect the status quo. 

Similarly, policy analysts have made an airtight case for decades that pricing policies are both effective and cost-effective at reducing emissions, but for the most part politicians and the public have resisted such policies. We seem to prefer our regulatory costs to be high and hidden rather than low and transparent.

What is going on? I’m not sure, but I can think of at least two partial answers. The first is our political system’s focus on the size of government rather than its efficacy. The “great debate” in this election is whether the government should be bigger or smaller, not whether government is effectively doing whatever tasks it is assigned. The key critique of cap and trade was that it was a tax and that it looked like too much government, when the debate should have been about its efficacy in reducing emissions and minimizing costs. We measure success or failure of federal action with respect to a particular energy source by the size of the budget or tax breaks devoted to it, not whether such action is effectively driving innovation or bringing down technology costs. Hayward et al. suggest we fix this through better program design, but that will not be easy. It requires a transformation of our nation’s political thinking at a very deep level. 

The second answer is specific to the energy system. It is an inconvenient truth that fossil fuels have some really attractive characteristics as energy sources. They are abundant, seemingly cheap (if one doesn’t take into account their environmental or energy security impacts, and of course the market price does not do so), and “energy-dense” (meaning they can produce a lot of energy per unit of volume and mass). They have also been used for a long time, and their use has co-evolved with extensive fuel distribution infrastructure and fuel-using equipment. Thus, shifting away from these fuels requires displacing a suite of interdependent incumbent technologies. 

This problem is really different, in kind and in scale, from any the U.S. government or the U.S. economy has wrestled with before. It is not like computer innovation, where a new set of technologies created new markets for new services; or airplanes, in which military procurement dominated an emerging market. To move away from the energy system we have, which meets our private needs very nicely, to one that may have lower social costs but higher private ones (at least for some transitional period), is going to be very difficult. Hayward et al. hope that we can eat our cake and have it, too, by finding new technologies that have both lower social costs and lower private costs. But substantially increasing government investment won’t guarantee this outcome – certainly not by itself. Rather the United States must make climate protection and national security a priority, and develop and implement a conscious, ambitious, and comprehensive national strategy with full public support. This is a daunting challenge.

Judi Greenwald is Vice President for Innovative Solutions

Federal agencies announce plans to prepare for climate change

We’ve been tracking federal government efforts towards reducing our vulnerability and increasing our resiliency in the face of the potential impacts and risks from climate change. I continue to be impressed by the steps that many federal agencies are taking in this regard—a lot of work is going on to mainstream climate change adaptation.

Yesterday the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force released its report to the President. During the past year this task force—which includes about 20 different Federal agencies—worked on developing recommendations and guiding principles on a strategic approach to climate change adaptation. The Task Force’s recommendations include: making sure that adaptation is a standard part of Agency planning (mainstreaming!), ensuring information about the impacts of climate change is accessible, and aligning federal efforts that cut across agency jurisdictions and missions.

A number of agencies have already gotten started on this. Two agencies within the Department of the Interior (DOI) released climate change strategies last month—the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. These efforts build on DOI’s overarching strategic response to climate change.

The Fish and Wildlife Service manages more than 150 million acres of wildlife refuges across the United States and has additional responsibilities related to the protection of fish populations, endangered species, and migratory birds. (Interesting side note: according to the Service, about 41 million people visit national wildlife refuges each year and their spending generates almost $1.7 billion in sales for regional economies.) The Service defines adaptation as “minimizing the impact of climate change on fish and wildlife through the application of cutting-edge science in managing species and habitats” and has made adaptation the centerpiece of its Strategic Plan.

Charged with preserving the natural and cultural heritage of our nation, adapting to climate change presents the National Park Service with many challenges. What should it do about the melting glaciers at Glacier National Park?  Or the threats of flooding to historic Jamestown, VA (part of the Colonial National Historical Park)? The National Park Service’s Climate Change Response Strategy details long- and short-term actions in three major areas: mitigation, adaptation, and public communication. Measures to tackle the adaptation piece include planning, promoting ecosystem resilience, preserving the nation’s heritage, and protecting facilities and infrastructure.

Earlier this month, the EPA released its 2011-2015 Strategic Plan containing five strategic goals for advancing its environmental and human health missions, the first of which is “Taking Action on Climate Change and Improving Air Quality.” As part of its Strategy, the EPA recognizes that it “must adapt and plan for future changes in climate” and “incorporate the anticipated, unprecedented changes in climate into its programs and rules.”

And just last week at the first White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) GreenGov Symposium there were three separate panels devoted to climate change adaptation. We heard presentations from the Army Corps of Engineers, CDC, CEQ, DOT, the Forest Service, HUD, OSTP, USDA, as well as a number of stakeholders including the state of Maryland, the Nature Conservancy, and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). All of which are very much engaged on the adaptation issue.

Finding it hard to keep track of all of these agencies and what they are up to? Don’t worry – we’ll be posting our newest adaptation report, Climate Change Adaptation: What Federal Agencies are Doing, to this site very soon.

Heather Holsinger is a Senior Fellow for Domestic Policy

Workshop Highlights Federal Efforts to Mainstream Adaptation to Climate Change

Last week we held a workshop at the Newseum in Washington, DC, entitled Federal Government Leadership: Mainstreaming Adaptation to Climate Change. The workshop was intended to build on our recent report highlighting the important role of the federal government in climate change adaptation and the recent National Academies’ report—Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change—which emphasized that the federal government should not only serve as a “role model,” but also play a significant role as a “catalyst and coordinator” in identifying vulnerabilities to climate change impacts and the adaptation options that could increase our resilience to these changes.

Climate Bill: Where to from Here?

Manik Roy, vice president for federal government outreach, co-wrote this post.

By all indications, the climate bill is done for the year. A casualty of … well, you’ve been hearing the blamefest.

So what’s next?

Unfortunately, none of the problems we sought to fix with the climate bill have been solved by ignoring them.

Power companies and businesses still need to know what carbon emission requirements lie ahead of them before investing millions of dollars in new equipment – especially for carbon capture and sequestration, nuclear power, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other low-carbon alternatives.

Mainstreaming Climate Change Adaptation Across the Federal Government

Today we released a report on climate change adaptation and the role of the federal government.

As we continue to await Senate action on a comprehensive bill that limits carbon pollution and grows the clean energy economy, the words of NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco resonate:

“Climate change is happening now and it's happening in our own backyards and it affects the kinds of things people care about.”

Ambitious greenhouse gas reduction programs are essential to prevent the worst impacts, but some impacts are unavoidable, such as more intense Midwestern heat waves, Western wildfires, and coastal threats from rising sea levels. If you haven’t already, check out this great map from the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s report on climate change impacts across the United States or look at EPA’s recent report on climate change indicators.

GCRP: Climate Change Impacts in U.S.
Source: U.S. Global Change Research Program. Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. 2009. http://www.globalchange.gov/publications/reports/scientific-assessments/us-impacts/usimpacts-brochures.

If we hope to minimize the costs of these impacts we’re going to have to better understand our vulnerabilities to climate change and begin to take steps to adapt.

Weyerhaeuser Joins USCAP

While opponents of a clean-energy economy try to frame both climate legislation and the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) as dead wood, today Weyerhaeuser—the multi-billion dollar forest products company—confounded those voices in announcing it has joined the USCAP coalition.  The company has long had a commitment to address climate change, and it has been an active member of our Business Environmental Leadership Council for nearly twelve years. 

This is more than a lone green shoot, as Weyerhaeuser joins an ever-growing chorus of companies calling for the U.S. economy to regain its competitive edge rather than let other countries corner the emerging global clean-energy market.  Weyerhaeuser, like the 24 companies in USCAP, 46 companies in BELC, 65+ companies on the recent Wall Street Journal and Politico ad and the over 2600 companies in the American Business for Clean Energy Coalition, all understand that we can protect our natural resources and future generations from climate change, while creating American jobs, taking back control of our own energy future, and enhancing our national security. 

The business community is leading on the issue—now we need the Senate to follow.

Tim Juliani is Director of Corporate Engagement in the Markets & Business Strategy group

Federal Agencies Are Moving Forward with Climate Change Initiatives

Here in Washington we’re waiting for the snow to end and Congress to make progress on a comprehensive climate and energy bill – both can’t come soon enough. And although the federal government has been closed here for the past few days, the past few weeks have seen some significant progress by federal agencies on the climate front.

As part of an effort to lead by example, President Obama announced that the federal government will reduce its greenhouse gas pollution by 28 percent by 2020. Federal agencies have been working on developing their targets since the release of President Obama’s Executive Order 13514 on Federal Sustainability in October of 2009, which requires agencies to set a number of measurable environmental performance goals. This target is the aggregate of 35 agency targets and the Obama Administration believes it will “reduce Federal energy use by the equivalent of 646 trillion BTUs, equal to 205 million barrels of oil, and taking 17 million cars off the road for one year.” Later this year federal agencies will be setting targets for their indirect GHG emissions (looking for GHG reduction opportunities with vendors and contractors, implementing low-carbon strategies for transit, travel, and conferencing, etc.).

We’ve also seen indications that the impacts of climate change are to be formally considered in the operations of two prominent federal agencies. The Pentagon released a long-term strategy that for the first time recognizes climate change as a direct threat to U.S. forces. In the Department of Defense (DOD) Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) Report–the legislatively-mandated review of DOD strategy and priorities—the agency noted that climate change will affect DOD in two broad ways. First, it will shape the operating environment and missions by acting as “an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.” And second, that DOD will need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on its facilities and military capabilities and will need to work to “assess, adapt to, and mitigate the impacts of climate change”.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has announced that companies should disclose to investors the potential risks and opportunities that climate change presents for their assets. Although the guidance is not a formal regulation, the SEC intends for it to “provide clarity and enhance consistency for public companies and their investors”. In addition to the physical impacts of climate change (floods or hurricanes, rising sea levels, water availability, etc.), examples of where climate change may trigger disclosure requirements include the impacts of climate legislation and regulations, international accords, and indirect consequences of regulation or business trends.

These recent developments, along with the President’s clear commitment to climate change and energy policy during his State of the Union address last month are very encouraging.

Speaking of making progress, its time for me to get back to shoveling snow.

Heather Holsinger is a Senior Fellow for Domestic Policy

Experts Debate Emissions and Driving

Transportation experts gathered in Washington last week for the Transportation Research Board’s 89th annual meeting. With over 10,000 participants and 600 sessions, it is hard to draw any crosscutting conclusions from the conference. With an eye on climate change, however, the TRB meeting indicated the transportation community is engaged and ready for reform. One of the conference’s hot topics addressed the potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by limiting vehicle miles traveled (VMT). VMT is one of the four major influences on transportation GHG emissions. The others are vehicles, fuels, and the overall efficiency of our transportation system. We need policies to address all four.

At a session entitled “Vehicle Miles Traveled Reduction Targets: Will This Strategy Get the Desired Results?,” the participants debated the effectiveness of VMT targets on reducing GHG emissions. Reducing driving may have been unimaginable in the previous era of urban sprawl and Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, but a confluence of interests in promoting livability and combating climate change has ushered in a new way of thinking about transportation. The idea of limiting VMT is not without its critics, however. Research is ongoing as to how much VMT can really be reduced, on the precise relationship between VMT and GHG emissions, on the costs and benefits of transportation alternatives, and on the distribution of those costs and benefits geographically and by income class.

Perhaps it was the panelists’ connection to the glory days of transportation in the United States or their own economic analyses, but they were mostly skeptical with respect to the efficacy of using VMT targets to reduce GHG emissions. As one speaker put it, “VMT is about technology versus behavior,” meaning lawmakers would use VMT targets to affect behavior due to a lack of confidence in technology.

Another speaker defined VMT targets and the subsequent effects on land-use policy as a “blunt instrument.” They argued VMT reductions would force a reorientation of the population in the United States without necessarily reducing GHG emissions. Furthermore, one panelist claimed VMT targets would be highly regressive.

The lone advocate for VMT targets acknowledged some of these detractions, but strongly pushed for the policy as a “good starting point” towards greater land-use reform. His research showed an economic benefit (i.e., jobs) from spending less on transportation, since people tend to spend that extra money on more labor-intensive products. He also highlighted polls and recent trends indicating that people want to live closer together. Lastly, the co-benefits of reducing VMT including improved safety and reduced congestion make the policy worthwhile even without considering the environmental benefits.

The panelists agreed on some things – for example, that researchers do not fully understand transportation behavior, and that there are substantial co-benefits of reducing VMT. They also agreed that a VMT tax would be preferable to the current Federal gasoline tax as a means of maintaining the surface transportation system, though they disagreed over its effects on GHG emissions. Enacting that policy, however, is politically challenging.

A proposal by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) to reform fundamentally the current transportation system stalled in 2009, and the legislative prospects in 2010 are unclear. In the absence of comprehensive reauthorizing legislation, action by the Administration – for example, through the Federal budget and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rulemaking – will be critical, as will state and local innovation. We could begin to see this needed leadership from the Administration in the form of the President’s budget, which is set for release on February 1st. DOT does have some discretion to improve federal transportation programs under its existing legislative authorities, and the President’s budget could include such reforms. The President could also propose more significant changes, but that would require Congressional approval.

Nick Nigro is an Innovative Solutions Fellow

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