The Cost of Doing Nothing
By Sarah Kellogg
When Hurricane Sandy tore through the East Coast in October 2012, it did for public perceptions of climate change what no number of scientists, years of advocacy, millions of dollars in lobbying, or decades of peer–reviewed research could do. The superstorm made climate change a real and present danger.
For decades environmentalists have warned the public about global warming and the perils ahead if policymakers fail to act. But for many, climate change remained a problem for future generations, for people who haven’t even been born yet. It didn’t have the urgency, say, of getting a job or paying your mortgage.
Sandy changed all that. Coming hard on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, perpetually melting ice caps, and a summer of record drought, here was yet another superstorm ripping away the veneer of safety, leaving its victims and the public insecure and wondering whether government could cope. In the end, Sandy’s financial cost was a crippling $50 billion, making it the second most costly storm in U.S. history behind Hurricane Katrina. Across the United States, a thought seemed to take hold: Climate change is real.
“There used to be a perception that climate change was a problem for the future,” says Richard W. Caperton, managing director for energy at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. “The recent dramatic increase in extreme weather has changed that perception. Now people know it’s not a future problem. It’s a now problem. It’s impacting us today.”
Hurricane Sandy was definitely one for the record books. Ninety–miles–per–hour hurricane winds colliding with a Nor’easter, combined with full–moon–powered high tides, qualifies as a once–in–a–millennium occurrence, yet scientists believe the unique factors that made this possible could come more frequently in the years ahead if nothing is done about climate change.
The public appears to get the message. Sixty–seven percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, according to the fall 2012 National Surveys on Energy and Environment (NSEE) by the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan (U–M) and the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College. Survey respondents said they held this view because of their own experiences of weather–related phenomena, including Hurricane Sandy. The surveys were taken before and after Sandy made landfall.
“In environmental policy, major policies tend to follow some horrible calamity or disaster,” says Barry Rabe, coauthor of the survey and the J. Ira and Nikki Harris Family Professor of Public Policy and the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Environmental Policy at U–M. “There was Love Canal’s toxic waste dumping (1970s) and the Superfund law, and the Santa Barbara oil spill (1969) and the Clean Water Act. In this area, the question is how bad do things have to get before you reach a tipping point for it to make good political sense to support it?”
So in 2012, a year that was filled with events writ large with meaning, Sandy proved to be at or near the top of a long list. The storm’s devastation gave policymakers and the public pause, generating a fresh interest in addressing climate change as well as adopting critical resilience and adaptability measures at the state and national level.
Sandy also had the effect of silencing climate–change deniers, albeit temporarily, by putting an exclamation point on a year of weather calamities—hurricanes, drought, wildfires, and flooding. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo summed it up at a press conference in the wake of Sandy’s devastation: “There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement, that is a factual statement. Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality.”
Most importantly, Sandy seemed to refocus Washington’s attention—at least in the White House, which had been mum on climate change during the presidential election. President Obama mentioned the threat of climate change in his inaugural address in January, and then used his State of the Union address in February to put lawmakers on notice. “[I]f Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” Obama warned. “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
Yet while the pump may seem primed for a wave of climate change legislation and regulations on the federal level, there are significant roadblocks to crafting regulatory and resource solutions that match the political and economic will of the public today. The fate of climate change legislation in Congress is uncertain, with partisan bickering and a budget crisis taking precedence. Still, there is a level of interest among legislators, especially in the U.S. Senate, in curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that hasn’t surfaced in nearly four years.
And while the science of climate change and the human activities that contribute to the environmental crisis are settled for nearly all of the experts and a majority of Americans, there are still questions about its causal links to extreme weather, such as hurricanes and tornadoes. Those questions could prove an obstacle in moving legislation forward.
Finally, with America’s famous short-term memory, many advocates are hoping that Washington will act sooner rather than later to further reduce GHG emissions or to offset the effects of climate change while the public will still exists and the memory of Hurricane Sandy is fresh in everyone’s minds.
Proof of Threat
Hurricane Sandy has come to embody the immediate dangers of climate change, but was it really the result of global warming? Or, as many scientists ask, was it another random act of weather resulting from a series of complex meteorological factors that baffle and frustrate the umbrella-carrying public?
Enter meteorologists Martin Hoerling and Stephanie Herring of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Both scientists say it is difficult at times to ascertain the cause of extreme weather and to draw a line back to climate change. That explains why the two scientists tend to trouble both sides of the climate–change debate.
“There is a difference between climate and weather,” Herring says. “Weather is definitely an immediate effect. The changing climate system is creating a lot of underlying factors that are related in some way to specific extreme events. The challenge remains to understand how those underlying climate conditions are related to those extreme events.”
Ask them about Sandy’s links to climate change, however, and they are as clear as they can be. Given what’s known today, there is no causal relationship between climate change and Sandy. They can speculate about the probability of these events increasing in terms of their severity and frequency in response to climate change, but there is no smoking gun.
“People sometimes conflate what they see on TV with climate change,” says Hoerling, who specializes in climate dynamics at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. “People lost their homes on beachfront property, and they were left standing there holding their broomsticks. We see these and think they’re impacts, but there are a couple other more important dimensions to this disaster.”
First is the fact that millions of people have built their homes in low–lying coastal zones that are susceptible to storms and flooding. By moving into harm’s way, their risk has increased substantially, Herring notes. Additionally, Hurricane Sandy happened at high tide during a lunar peak, which turns out to be a recipe for disaster. High tides rise about 20 percent above normal when the moon is in its full phase. “A high lunar cycle could add four or five feet to sea height,” Hoerling says. “It was an unfortunate sequence of events.”
Another influential factor, although a minor one, was sea level. Hoerling notes that sea level has risen some 18 inches along the East Coast due in part to climate change, and that it contributes to a higher storm surge but it is not a substantial effect on storm surges. “Sea–level rise is about 18 inches since the 1850s at Battery Park south of Manhattan,” Hoerling says. “Three–quarters of that is due to warming of the oceans since that time, but it wasn’t a major factor in the hurricane.”
Confronting the narrow reality of climate science is a hurdle for the environmental community. After all, the climate doubters have been arguing for years that the science is unproven and slanted to benefit the environmentalists. The environmental community has come to live with the nuance and the absence of definitive answers, although less of that has been required of late. They point out that climate change is altering the quality of the weather, even if it is not always causing it.
“The projection for what climate change is going to do is to increase the number of the most powerful hurricanes we experience,” says Megan Ceronsky, an attorney at the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “It is not possible to tie any one weather event to climate change. What we see is the increasing amount of heat in the climate system and the resulting intensifying of the climate system. Sandy is an incredibly powerful illustration of what the future looks like.”
And that’s where Hoerling and Herring see a causal connection. The drought and heatwaves of the summer of 2012 are linked to climate change. Both weather patterns were more intense, more frequent, and lasted longer due to global warming, even if the effect was to add another degree to the heatwave or to extend the drought by an additional day. “You can see the effect of climate change ringing through the noise of weather patterns,” Hoerling says. “The climate is drifting toward a warmer state because of the increasing greenhouse gases. We’re seeing it on a continental scale.”
The National Climatic Data Center at NOAA confirms it. The year 2012 was the warmest for the continental United States since the government started keeping records 107 years ago. In 2012 the nation experienced a record warm spring, the second–warmest summer ever, the fourth–warmest winter, and a warmer–than–average fall. The average temperature for 2012 was 55.3°F, or 3.2°F above the 20th–century average. Meanwhile, the average precipitation was 26.57 inches, 2.57 inches below the average. At its peak last summer, the drought of 2012 engulfed 61 percent of the country, with the Great Plains, the Midwest, and the Mountain West experiencing the most intense drought conditions.
“Adding heat–trapping gases to the atmosphere through the burning of coal, oil, and gas is like putting Earth’s climate system on steroids,” said J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society and professor and director of the Program in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Georgia, during a briefing on climate science in February by the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
“In sports, you can’t say any individual home run … was ‘caused’ by steroids, but it is clear that the drugs increased the odds of those events … The combination of additional energy and moisture in the atmosphere could be seen as ‘steroids’ for the atmosphere loading the dice towards greater probability of storms like Sandy,” Shepherd added.
Climate change did not wreak havoc in the United States alone in 2012. The disappearance of the Arctic sea ice continued unabated, drought hit nearly every continent, Greenland lost huge patches of its ice sheet, and glacial calving there was considerable. The Eurasian continent cold spell proved devastating, and flooding disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the globe. All in all, not a good year for the world.
“Every weather event that happens nowadays takes place in the context of a changed background climate,” said Donald J. Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois, during the February Senate committee briefing. “Nothing is entirely ‘natural’ anymore. The background atmosphere has changed and continues to change due to human activity.”
As the evidence of a changing climate has strengthened considerably in the last four years, so has the belief that human beings are responsible for the change. The average temperature in the United States has increased by 1.5°F since 1895, and more than 80 percent of that increase happened in the years since 1980.
“[M]ost of the climate change of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities,” said Wuebbles, a member of the Federal Advisory Committee that oversees the development of the 2013 National Climate Assessment. “The science is clear and convincing that change is happening, happening rapidly, and happening primarily because of human activities.”
The public has gotten the message as well. According to the 2012 NSEE, confidence levels in the science of climate change have increased. Six out of 10 Americans who believe global warming is happening are very confident about their appraisal. And four in 10 Americans, the highest level since 2008, believe global warming can be attributed to the activities of humans.
U–M’s Rabe suggests that people’s attitudes are changing, due in part to weather patterns but also because of concerns about glacial melting, ice cap thawing, and the plight of polar bears that are often trapped on melting ice floes. “These really resonate for a lot of people,” Rabe says.
Temperature appears to resonate with scientists. In a series of convincing reports over the last year, scientists have come out with ominous predictions about the earth’s temperature and how it will change. A report released last November by the World Bank, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided, suggests that the world is on track to warm by 4°C over the next 100 years, and with disastrous consequences to global food stocks and the ecosystem. The report notes that the current global mean temperature is about 0.8°C above pre–industrial levels.
“For all intents and purposes, because there is no penalty today, there’s no cost of releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. We’re treating the atmosphere like an open sewer,” said James J. McCarthy, a professor of biological oceanography at Harvard University, at the same Senate committee briefing on climate change.
In its fourth annual Low Carbon Economy Index 2012, titled Too Late for Two Degrees?, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC) found that it is “highly unrealistic” that the world will be able to decarbonize quickly enough to limit warming by an average of 2°C. The report emphasized that delaying action to reduce carbon pollution today will require even more time, energy, and money in the coming years.
According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) recently released World Energy Outlook 2012, today’s “global energy system is unsustainable” and that the average global temperature is forecasted to increase 3.6°C above pre–industrial levels by 2035.
Scientists say that mounting evidence supports their warning that without widespread and immediate efforts to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, climate change could pose a significant threat to human health and other life on the planet today and in the future.
A New Approach
As the arguments of climate doubters have lost traction, save for some in Congress, policymakers opposed to comprehensive GHG regulation for a variety of reasons have adopted a novel method for arguing against new federal legislation. At a February 14 hearing of the Subcommittee on Environment of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives decided to declare victory.
During the hearing lawmakers examined the state of the environment in the United States today. The hearing’s charter was rife with good news resulting from federal air-pollution regulations over the last 30 years. “[T]he aggregate emissions for the six criteria air pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act have dropped 63 percent since 1980,” the charter noted. “Over the same period, America’s gross domestic product increased 128 percent, energy consumption increased 26 percent, population grew by 37 percent, and vehicle miles traveled increased 94 percent.”
Calling it the “greatest story never told,” U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R–Md.), the subcommittee chair, questioned why the media and environmentalists rarely mention these improvements. “[D]espite the substantial progress made in environmental health and quality of life, Americans are constantly bombarded by the media and this administration with doomsday predictions,” Harris said. “For instance, we have been told that extreme storms and increased childhood asthma are indicators that the environment is worse off than ever. These allegations fly in the face of the hard facts that severe weather has always been a threat and that our air quality [has] improved dramatically.”
That was a message echoed by the other speakers, as they teased out how government regulations, working in tandem with a muscular economy and a dynamic free market, have improved the environment. “Of course, EPA regulation played a major role in this,” said Kathleen Hartnett White, director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Were it not for the prosperity in our country, I think it would be impossible for this achievement. The creative technology and operational efficiencies, which are the hallmarks of the free market, were absolutely necessary for this.”
One speaker even suggested that there has been so much progress that Congress could afford to weaken regulations. “We have restored the air, soil, and water of America to a condition that we can all be proud of,” said Richard Trzupek, a chemist and principal consultant at Trinity Consultants, Inc., which works with Fortune 500 companies. “We can scale back our efforts to more reasonable and appropriate levels in recognition of today’s reality.”
Environmentalists say the tactic of embracing the hard–won advances in cleaning U.S. air is novel but unrealistic. Those great achievements are not a reason to stop but rather to continue. Just because the air above American cities doesn’t look like the industrial fog hanging over Beijing these days, Congress cannot afford to abandon efforts to address the pollution problem, including climate change, that still plagues the United States, advocates note.
“I think they’re right to celebrate the achievements that have been made under the Clean Air Act,” says Ceronsky of EDF. “We’ve made great strides in cleaning up the pollution in our country. It doesn’t mean, however, that we’re done. We’re still having people, children getting sick because of air pollution. We haven’t made enough progress yet.”
“Our history shows us exactly what we can do. What the Clean Air Act has done is put signals into the marketplace. We have developed pollution control technology and new ways of making products based on the act,” she adds.
Adaption and Resiliency
One of the critical lessons of Sandy, environmentalists say, is that local communities are ill–prepared for extreme weather events of that magnitude. Admittedly, Sandy hit some of the nation’s most populous and congested metropolitan areas, so the devastating impact of the storm grew exponentially. But there are key resiliency takeaways from the storm that could prove invaluable in crafting a legislative response to Sandy and other extreme weather patterns.
“We’re seeing more of a focus on adaption and resilience in the climate debate,” says David Hunter, a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law. “How do we strengthen our ecosystems with our natural resilience and do it in a smart way so we’re not going to have to come back after every storm? I think it means we can’t keep rebuilding in areas we know are going to be increasingly vulnerable to climate impacts. Those areas are along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.”
Making local communities more resilient in the face of severe weather—without abandoning coastal zones or flood plains completely and turning them back over to nature—is going to be a challenge. Certainly much of the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico shorelines is susceptible to flooding and storm surges. That is true for Washington, D.C., as well, where low–lying land along the Potomac River is partially back–filled dirt. Designing an urban strategy that allows people to build but also protects taxpayers from the cyclical costs of emergency management, cleanup, and rebuilding is essential. A number of states along the Gulf of Mexico have been looking at sea–level rise and coastal land use, including how they affect flood insurance, property values, and zoning.
“We’re seeing an interest on the state level in adaption and resilience, even in states that are not that progressive on climate policy,” says Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown University Law Center and a visiting professor of law. “Even if they’re not at the forefront in terms of pushing clean energy or mitigating greenhouse gases, they are about adaption planning.”
She noted that Alaska has been especially proactive in dealing with concerns about the state’s melting permafrost and coastal erosion, both due to climate change. When permafrost, the frozen ground that rests one or two feet below the surface, thaws, the soil sinks, destabilizing buildings, highways, and airport runways. In 2009 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified 178 communities threatened by erosion, and relocation has already begun for the Alaskan villages of Shishmaref, Kivalina, and Newtok. Meanwhile, Alaska’s transportation officials are stepping up efforts to maintain highways in the face of permafrost thawing by incorporating mitigation elements into the design of roadways.
“More and more, everyone is having to adapt in real time,” Arroyo says. “Some states are looking at the need to change their way of life. They acknowledge that sea levels are rising even if state policies [are] not.”
On December 28, 2012, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed an executive order setting “coast–smart” construction standards for all new state facilities and infrastructure improvements to minimize future flood damage. “[I]t is vital that we commit our resources and expertise to create a ready and resilient Maryland, by taking the necessary steps to adapt to the rising sea and unpredictable weather,” O’Malley said.
Additionally, states are acting without federal involvement to regulate power plant and automobile emissions. Nine Northeast and Mid–Atlantic states banded together to create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to contain carbon emissions through legislation within their borders. In February the group proposed a carbon dioxide emissions cap of 91 million tons for power plants in the region, a 45–percent reduction from the 2005 cap. The cap would decline 2.5 percent each year from 2015 to 2020.
California also remains the tip of the spear when it comes to state climate change mitigation efforts. Its emissions limits on power plants and automobiles lead the nation, and often the federal government as well. Last November the state held its first auction of greenhouse gas emission allowances under its cap–and–trade market. The money from the sales will be used to finance programs that mitigate climate change.
“The marketplace, without some kind of price signal on carbon, is not going to be able to make it happen,” Arroyo says. “We need policy. Even leading states and businesses cannot do it alone. We need a comprehensive federal and international solution to a global problem.”
Democrats and Republicans in Congress may not always agree on GHG emissions, but they share a concern about the need for climate change adaption at the local level. A Senate resolution introduced in January called for lawmakers to “prepare and protect communities” from extreme weather with new investments in infrastructure to withstand storms, flooding, drought, and heatwaves. The resolution also promoted the investment of federal dollars into clean energy solutions, energy efficiency, and technology solutions that reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
The $50 billion supplemental funding bill approved by Congress to provide resources to those states hit hardest by Sandy is seen by many as a down payment for the investment that is essential to make states and cities more adaptable and resilient to extreme weather.
Seeking Bipartisan Action
Ask just about anyone and they will tell you they are almost certain that Obama’s call to action on climate change will go unheeded in Congress this term. There isn’t the political will to do it, but then there is little political will to do anything right now in either chamber of Congress. With divisions so deep and Republicans still smarting from the 2012 election, there is almost no interest in working cooperatively on a subject as thorny as climate change.
“We go back and forth on the momentum to pass more comprehensive climate change legislation,” says Hunter of American University. “I’m skeptical we’ll see Congress coming together on any major issues. I don’t think the consensus is there. A few more disasters have to strike before [we see it], I regret to say.”
The Democrat–controlled Senate will likely move forward on a bill, hoping to reclaim the momentum of 2009 when the House approved a comprehensive energy and climate change bill, only to have it killed in the Senate. The American Clean Energy and Security Act, known as the Waxman–Markey bill for its cosponsors U.S. Reps. Henry Waxman (D–Calif.) and Ed Markey (D–Mass.), included a renewable energy standard as well as a cap–and–trade scheme to reduce emissions and establish an emissions permitting process.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has cosponsored a bill with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) to create a carbon tax. To elevate the issue, Boxer is hosting a series of briefings on climate change this year to inform her colleagues and the public about the subject.
“Senators Boxer and Sanders have introduced sort of the gold standard bill on climate change from an environmental perspective,” says Manik Roy, vice president for strategic outreach at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), an environmental research and advocacy group. “[Their] bill would use revenues from a carbon tax to support clean energy, worker transitions to energy jobs, and energy efficiency. In this tight fiscal climate, those would be tough to get through this Congress.”
Little is expected to move through the Senate, in part because the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee is the famous climate denier U.S. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and he appears to hold the whip hand in the Republican caucus on climate change. Even if his colleagues believe the science of climate change, many of them have ceded the territory to him, and his views guide the Republican Party’s general response to efforts from Boxer and others to push a broad climate bill. In Senate voting in March, efforts to win support for a comprehensive climate bill failed, but then so did legislation to block the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon.
If lightning does strike twice this year on climate change, it might be around tax reform. A carbon tax might be employed to offset the costs of corporate tax reform if the House Committee on Ways and Means moves forward with its tax overhaul efforts. Rep. Dave Camp, the Michigan Republican who chairs the committee, is determined to press forward, but he has not committed to including a carbon tax in any proposal. Environmentalists say a carbon tax of $20 per ton—rising at 5.6 percent each year—could generate more than $1 trillion in federal revenues over the next 10 years.
Another option would be to take advantage of the massive policy and funding bills for agriculture and transportation, both of which are still in play right now. “We may not see any big steps taken on climate change in Congress, but the renewals of the farm and transportation bills could include measures that would support clean energy or reduce emissions,” Roy says.
A Challenge for Obama
The Obama administration says it is prepared to act if Congress doesn’t adopt a cap–and–trade system for carbon emissions or a carbon tax as part of a comprehensive tax reform proposal. It has the legal authority to go its own way and carry through on the president’s promise to push forward GHG mitigation efforts through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA gave the agency the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under existing air pollution laws if the agency issues an endangerment finding that carbon dioxide represents a threat to human health and the environment. In December 2009, former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson issued a finding that carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride contribute to climate change, and the federal courts have upheld the finding.
“It’s been a huge plus in giving the federal government the authority to take regulatory actions to mitigate climate change,” says Robert L. Glicksman, the J. B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law at The George Washington University Law School, of the 2007 decision. “The single strongest thing the Obama administration has done is to increase fuel efficiency standards, and that has come because of this authority.”
Empowered by the courts, the EPA also has set a carbon standard for new power plants, although the rule has yet to be finalized, and it’s expected that the administration will want to use the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions from existing plants as well. One–third of U.S. greenhouse gases come from existing power plants.
Assistant EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Obama’s choice for administrator, will likely oversee the EPA’s efforts during his second term. McCarthy ran the Senate confirmation gauntlet in April, defending her history in the EPA as the author of new corporate average fuel economy standards and clean air regulations that restricted emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Such an action would build on Obama’s first–term environmental victories, according to Arroyo. Those activities included increasing fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, reducing GHG emissions from older power plants, and using stimulus funding to support state-level investments in fuel efficiency and renewable energy.
The environmental community has a wish list of actions the president and the EPA could take without congressional approval to genuinely reduce GHG emissions and to stave off the effects of climate change.
First, the president could direct the EPA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and other federal agencies to reduce methane emissions, which is the second most prevalent GHG. By capturing methane released in coal mines, from pipelines, in natural gas production, and in landfills, the United States could delay the effects of climate change by as much as 15 years, scientists say.
The EPA could also raise fuel economy standards for heavy trucks. A current agreement requires U.S. automakers to attain fuel efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Or the president could raise energy efficiency standards for household appliances and industrial equipment. The Energy Department has issued 16 such standards to advance energy savings since 2009.
Another bold move would be to have the EPA and other federal agencies address the problem of soot or black carbon by getting tough on the use of diesel engines and the burning of coal to power public utilities.
Obama could also reject the Keystone XL Pipeline project, sending a signal that he won’t support the expansion of fossil fuel capability by allowing the Canadians to increase their oil sands production to fill the pipeline that cuts through the Midwest and Great Plains states. A Congressional Research Service report issued in March shows that crude from Canadian oil sands “are on average somewhat more GHG emission intensive than the crudes they may displace in U.S. refineries.”
By tackling the pipeline question, the United States could flex its international muscles and provide global leadership, especially at a time when it is viewed as more of a backseat driver. In December 2009, during the Copenhagen climate talks, the president pledged to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. That target is still achievable, even if Congress doesn’t act, if the president embraces the braver options, environmentalists say.
Yet the Obama administration will likely run afoul of some in corporate America if it tries to push for new GHG regulations using executive authority. The business community is not monolithic, and a number of companies have distanced themselves from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over its opposition to climate change legislation in 2009, but there is hostility to any effort to remake the landscape with strict new emissions standards.
In his annual State of American Business speech in January, Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber, staked out a firm position. “On the environmental front, major EPA rules imposed over the last decade cost more than $23 billion and its new ozone regulation could cost up to $90 billion,” Donohue said. “If EPA moves forward with rules on greenhouse gas emissions—and applies them beyond power plants and refineries—it could ensnare roughly 6 million facilities in burdensome permitting requirements.”
A failure to act, however, could bring a round of lawsuits from environmental groups, which now feel that the judicial system, thanks to earlier court rulings, is a legitimate and likely successful route to enforcing standards and achieving compliance.
The Future Is Now
Whether Congress and the White House are able to take the steps necessary to mitigate climate change or make communities more resilient in the face of extreme weather, a pattern is emerging in U.S. environmental policy today. The arrival of extreme weather results in widespread destruction and causes a panic, which triggers promises for change from elected officials and a flurry of activity in the media, but soon enough the memory of the disaster fades and all those promises will likely go unkept.
“Knowing what we know about the gravity of the situation, I think it’s impossible to feel positive right now,” says Caperton of the Center for American Progress. “It’s a very bleak and scary future we’re facing unless we take action. Because of the congressional deadlock, we’re not taking sufficient action, but there is room for optimism if the president will act on his own.”
The premise of environmental law is to act to prevent the next or future disaster, legal experts say. To do that, policymakers must proceed on the basis of partial evidence and to trust that there is a causal connection between climate change and extreme weather.
“What’s worse, regulating now and finding out later that we didn’t need to regulate or finding out later that we should have done it far earlier?” Glicksman asks. “It’s far more expensive to put the genie back in the bottle if we should have acted … and even worse if it turns out to be too late. Certainly there are scientists who talk about the tipping point with greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that set off a chain of events that is basically unstoppable. We have to hope that we aren’t there yet.”
Ultimately, how far the Obama administration and Congress are able to move will be contingent on the public’s willingness to live with the costs of regulation and avoid the consequences of climate change. Certainly the president can lead the nation, but for climate change regulations to be successful, much will depend on how the public feels about climate change and whether it sees the connection to their own lives and well–being, experts say.
But many advocates argue that the memory of Hurricane Sandy isn’t fading yet, that it can still be the cudgel to force action on the federal level because the situation is dire enough to require such kind of pressure.
“The hurricane gave climate change a single iconic image,” says Roy of C2ES. “I think everybody in this country who has any years on them at all can see that things are changing. The winters are warmer and there are no more ice skating ponds out back. The summers are hotter and there are more and more droughts. People are experiencing this in a very personal way. It’s not about polar bears anymore. It’s happening in our own backyard.”
Sarah Kellogg last wrote about digital estate planning and management in the January 2013 issue of Washington Lawyer.