On Climate Change, Obama Science Team Charts Good Course

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has released a six-point plan in a letter to President Obama responding to his request for input on his second term climate strategy.

PCAST laid out a clear-eyed vision of what we as a nation can accomplish, if our best minds put aside ideology and focus on the problem at hand.

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President Obama visiting the Siemens turbine plant in Fort Madison, Iowa, in 2010. (image via Siemens)

Here’s what the group called on the president to do:

  1. focus on national preparedness for climate change;
  2. continue efforts to decarbonize the economy, with emphasis on the electricity sector;
  3. level the playing field for clean-energy and energy-efficiency technologies by removing regulatory obstacles, addressing market failures, adjusting tax policies, and providing time-limited subsidies for clean energy when appropriate;
  4. sustain research on next-generation clean-energy technologies and remove obstacles for their eventual deployment;
  5. take additional steps to establish U.S. leadership on climate internationally; and
  6. conduct an initial Quadrennial Energy Review.

PCAST represents some of our nation’s best thinkers. Among them are two Nobel Prize-winning chemists, a handful of MacArthur “geniuses” and a number of leaders in the fields of technology and medicine. Several of them are not just scientists but business people—biotech innovators, venture capitalists, Google’s Executive Chairman. John P. Holdren, the president’s chief science advisor and the Council’s co-chair, was my professor in graduate school and I can attest to his scientific acumen, insistence on precision, and fly fishing prowess.

Further proof of the group’s collective smarts is their emphasis in this letter on pragmatism—on strategies that will work despite the stalemate in Congress. They recognize that what we need now are actions that move us forward in concrete steps.

PCAST’s plan provides an integrated climate strategy to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable:

Mitigation is needed to avoid a degree of climate change that would be unmanageable despite efforts to adapt. Adaptation is needed because the climate is already changing and some further change is inevitable regardless of what is done to reduce its pace and magnitude.

To better manage the unavoidable, PCAST calls for federal coordination of preparedness planning, for the sharing of best practices, and for increased preparedness research. Importantly, it advocates “an infrastructure renewal plan that integrates climate preparedness and other benefits to the Nation’s economy,” and

changes to Federal policies on disaster relief and insurance to ensure that economic incentives are aligned with long-term safety and security, and that financial capital, when invested following a disaster, is used not just to rebuild, but to rebuild better.

The Council next focuses on what surely is our most important challenge: decarbonizing the American economy. “[A] primary aim of new policy efforts,” they wrote, “should be to reinforce…pathways to lower CO2 emissions.” The group advocated for a price on carbon—either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. But it didn’t stop there. “Given the political resistance to such approaches,” they observed, “there are other policy measures that can also encourage energy transformation and decarbonization.” Prime among them: The group recommends using the Clean Air Act to regulate the more than 40 percent of U.S. carbon pollution that comes from existing fossil-fuel-burning power plants and other stationary sources. (In December, NRDC introduced a plan to do just that.)

This recommendation was effectively endorsed by the Senate recently. While most of the country was watching March Madness on the basketball courts, the Senate actually did something sane. It rejected, by a vote of 52 to 47, an amendment to the Budget bill offered by Sen. Jim “climate change is a hoax” Inhofe (R-OK) that sought to prevent EPA from doing its job of setting carbon pollution standards.

PCAST noted that the ongoing transition from coal to gas can contribute to reducing global warming pollution, but “only in so far as methane leakage from production and transport is held to low levels and drinking water is not adversely impacted.” The truth is, it’s possible to move away from coal without getting bloated with gas, through renewable energy and energy efficiency. That latter resource could save the country billions of dollars a year, while helping to safeguard our climate and protect our water and air.

The next set of strategies PCAST laid out are designed to help overcome barriers to greater reliance on these non-emitting resources. PCAST recommended opening upMaster Limited Partnerships and Real Estate Investment Trusts, two systems of tax preferences, to renewable energy investment; to date, these preferences have been available only to investors in polluting power. Importantly, some of this can be accomplished by Treasury rulings alone; other components need Congressional action. The Council also recommends expanding the Production Tax Credit to all forms of renewable energy, not just wind power, and, renewing it for five to 10 years (the one-to-two year extensions that have been enacted in recent years result in an inefficient boom-and-bust cycle that makes renewables more expensive than they would be with stable policy and steady investment).

PCAST advocates investing in “’game-changing’ research and development in advanced energy technologies,” including increases in funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E) program, which promotes energy innovation.

On international issues, PCAST was clear that many opportunities for action exist, if the president pursues them: a new North American Climate agreement with Canada andMexico, elements of which are already in the works. And, increased cooperation withChina—continued and expanded “scientific exchanges, bilateral workshops on climate change adaptation and agricultural preparedness, and increased bilateral interactions of policy leaders” can help provide international leadership for climate solutions.

Finally, the group also calls for a Quadrennial Energy Review, to “provide an analytical underpinning for policy tradeoffs.” (This is a group of scientists after all—what else would you expect?)

Not so many months ago, in his State of the Union speech, President Obama promised us, the American people, that “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. 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.”

Many of those actions are outlined in the PCAST letter. This is smart advice that President Obama, on behalf of those future generation, can’t afford not to follow.

nrdcEditor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Natural Resources Defense Council. Author credit goes to Dan Lashof.

NRDC is the nation's most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of 1.3 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists and other professionals.