What Obama Must Do Now for the Environment

10 key ideas for new climate change and energy policies in the president's second term

barack obama acceptance speech
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Barack Obama delivers his re-election acceptance speech in Chicago.
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President Obama is in no danger of being judged by history as an eco-radical. Yes, in his first term, he increased fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, boosted wind and solar power and finalized rules to limit mercury pollution from coal plants. But his silence on the biggest issue of our time – climate change – has been deafening. Now Obama has another shot at it. What should the president do on climate and energy in his second term? Here are 10 ideas:

1.  Give the Big Climate Speech

"We want our children to live in an America that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet," President Obama said in his acceptance speech a few weeks ago. That's a good start, but it's not even close to what needs to be said by the President of the United States about the biggest challenge civilization has ever faced. Failing to address climate change straightforwardly is the biggest failure of Obama's first term. In his second term, Obama needs to end the climate silence and describe the risks the world faces by continuing to dump carbon into the atmosphere, as well as his plan to address it.  Obama said in a recent interview that his biggest mistake as president was not being a better storyteller.  Well, here's his chance. Climate change is the biggest story of our time. He needs to tell it.

Probability it will happen: Depends on the weather.

2.  Kill Keystone Pipeline

Here's a no-brainer for Obama's second term: kill the Keystone pipeline once and for all. Last January, Obama delayed approval of the permit to build the $7 billion pipeline, which carries dirty tar sands oil down from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries, by arguing that his administration did not have time for a sufficient environmental and regulatory review. In the past year, much has changed. Not only is America awash in oil and gas, but the industry's arguments that the pipeline will create thousands of new jobs has been debunked, as has the idea that the pipeline will help reduce dependence on foreign oil. What the pipeline will do is accelerate climate change, increase risks of an oil spill into the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska, and enrich oil companies. Just say no, Mr. President.

Probability it will happen: High.

3.  Put a Price on Carbon

If Obama really wants to do something to curb the destructive power of a warming planet, he will push Congress to pass legislation that puts a price on carbon. It could be a cap and trade scheme, like California recently enacted (and which Congress failed to pass during Obama's first term), or a straight carbon tax, which could be structured to raise revenue (appealing to deficit hawks) or to pay a yearly dividend to citizens (appealing to voters). So far, Obama has not signaled that he is willing to take on this fight in the second term, but the simple truth is that a price on carbon is the single biggest thing that he could to transform America's energy system, create new jobs in the cleantech industry and slow global warming.

Probablity it will happen: Very low.

4.  End Mountaintop Removal Mining

Mountaintop removal mining – a method of coal mining used mostly in Appalachia that blasts away mountains to get at thin seams of coal – is burying thousands of miles of streams in West Virginia and Kentucky, polluting drinking water, and bringing sickness and economic ruin to the region. It is also illegal, by any common-sense interpretation of federal environmental laws. Fortunately, there's a simple fix: Obama can direct the EPA to overturn the Bush administration's 2002 change in the so-called "fill rule," which gave coal companies free reign to dump millions of tons of rock and toxic rubble in streams and valleys. Overturn that change and the economics of mountaintop removal instantly become unsustainable. It might not save the climate, but it will save Appalachia.

Probability it will happen: 50-50.

5.  Tame Frackers

Thanks to fracking, America is enjoying a boom in natural gas supplies. During the campaign, Obama came dangerously close to mouthing the gas industry's talking points, citing the creation of 600,000 jobs and 100 years of natural gas supplies (both are gross overstatements). "Obama is telling the wrong story," says filmmaker and activist Josh Fox. "Natural gas is not the solution to America's energy problems. It is worse for climate than coal. It is hindering the renewable revolution." Besides changing the storyline, Obama needs to crack down on frackers. Three places to start: first, declare fracking fluid a toxic waste subject to the cradle-to-grave management requirements of all toxic materials. Second, set limits on fugitive methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. Finally, require that drillers pay for economic and environmental damage to nearby landowners.

Probability it will happen: Low.

6.  Limit Carbon Pollution from Existing Coal Plants

When it comes to global warming, coal is the gorilla in the room. Last year, thanks to a Supreme Court decision ruling that carbon dioxide is indeed a dangerous pollutant and therefore needs to be regulated, the EPA issued rules to limit carbon pollution from new coal plants. It was a good step, but since nobody is building coal plants in the U.S. anymore, it's largely symbolic. In Obama's second term, the EPA will likely propose a carbon standard for existing coal plants. How tough that standard is, and how soon it is implemented, will say a lot about the seriousness of Obama's plan to curb global warming.

Probability it will happen: 50-50.

7.  Go Global

OK, so the Kyoto Protocol is dead. What next? Climate is a global problem; it needs a global solution.  World leaders are meeting in Doha, Qatar this week to discuss climate issues, but nothing important is likely to come of it (on the opening day of the talks, Obama disappointed activists by signing a law excluding U.S. airlines from the European Union's carbon limits for airlines). In his second term, Obama can show the world he is serious about tackling climate change by restarting international negotiations to limit carbon pollution, either inside or outside of the United Nations framework. Even a bi-lateral deal with China would be a big step in the right direction.

Probability it will happen: Low.

8.  Launch a Satellite

To understand how quickly we're cooking the planet, we need good data. To have good data, we need good satellites. Unfortunately, the European Space Agency recently lost contact with Envisat, the premier earth-observing satellite. NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory fell into the ocean shortly after launch in 2009. The Europeans are set to launch another earth-observing satellite in 2014 (if funding isn't cut), but it's only a faction of what's needed. Obama should give NASA a new mission: eyes in the sky for planet Earth.

Probability it will happen: High.

9. Prepare for Extreme Weather

2012 has been a year of extreme weather: heat records shattered across the nation, epic drought in the Midwest, $33 billion in damages from Hurricane Sandy. Imagine what will happen when Mother Nature really gets pissed off? To prepare for our super-heated future, Obama should reform FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program so that the government no longer subsidizes building and rebuilding in low-lying coastal areas vulnerable to big storms. Another easy call: Launch a national plan to assess climate resilience, including analysis of how to protect cities most at risk, including Boston, New York and Miami (likely the next Atlantis).

Probability it will happen: High.

10.  Fund Geoengineering Research

Geoengineering – the deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the earth's climate to offset global warming – is a nightmare fix for climate change. British scientist James Lovelock has called it "chemotherapy for planet earth." But it's a fix that, given our failure to cut carbon pollution, we might need. If we inject particles into the stratosphere, will it reflect enough sunlight to cool the planet? Can we brighten clouds to shade the earth? Before we get into a real climate panic, it would be wise to find out. It will piss off enviros, but Obama should  launch a modest geoengineering research program, run by the best scientists we've got.

Probability it will happen: Higher than you think.

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