Real science comes to Washington

Myopic conservatives and the media still don't get global warming. But if anybody can preserve a livable climate, Obama's amazing energy team can.

Topics: Environment, Energy, Barack Obama, Science

The greatest task of the Obama administration — and the next 10 presidents — is to avoid catastrophic global warming. The latest science warns that the unstable West Antarctic ice sheet has been warming significantly since the 1950s, the rate of Greenland summer ice loss tripled last year, and the planet as a whole lost 2 trillion tons of ice in the last five years. The best mid-range estimate for sea level rise by the year 2100 is 5 feet, much higher than U.N. scientists projected just two years ago.

Fortunately, Obama clearly gets it. He devoted more of his inaugural address to clean energy and global warming than even the strongest advocate could have imagined, asserting, “We will work tirelessly to … roll back the specter of a warming planet.” More important, he has assembled a team with unmatched knowledge and commitment to solve the climate problem.

But the path toward a carbon-reduced future will not be an easy one. President Obama will be challenged by a lack of awareness by the media and major opinion makers, who still don’t grasp the scope of the problem, and by the majority of GOP politicians who refuse to accept the dire facts of climate science. If Obama is going to lead this country and the world in the fight to preserve a livable climate, he will be forced to do so in a partisan fashion. That task can’t be underestimated. But it’s a huge relief to see the energy team that Obama has assembled for the battle.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and Obama himself all campaigned on putting in place a cap and trading system that would cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This is the same target New Jersey adopted under the prodding of New Jersey environmental chief Lisa Jackson, named by Obama to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Science advisor designee John Holdren co-authored a major report for the United Nations in 2007, setting a target for global warming this century of no more than 2°C to 2.5°C, which requires global emissions to peak within a decade, and necessitates a U.S. target at least as strong as that on which Obama campaigned. Carol Browner, who will oversee Obama’s energy and climate policy from the White House, has endorsed the same temperature and greenhouse gas targets.

Achieving the Obama target would require replacing the country’s entire multitrillion-dollar energy infrastructure — including the vast majority of power plants and cars — in four decades. I would call this policy “radical,” but in fact it is pragmatic. Failing to act quickly will most likely result, by century’s end, in 5°C to 7°C global warming, sea levels rising 10 inches a decade or more, widespread desertification, the loss of the inland glaciers that provide water to a billion people and an ocean that is one large, hot, acidic dead zone.

Obama signaled he understands the dire consequences of failing to pursue his campaign promise when he named Holdren and picked Nobelist Stephen Chu for energy secretary. Holdren has more combined expertise on both climate science and clean energy technology than any other person who could plausibly have been named science advisor. Holdren has said “the evidence makes clear that civilization has already generated dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system. What keeps me going is my belief that there is still a chance of avoiding catastrophe.”

I have been on the same conference dais as Chu and can attest that he gets it. As one news report noted, “Chu’s views on climate change would be among the most forceful ever held by a cabinet member.” He has also endorsed a 2°C target, and noted that “the climate is much more sensitive than we thought,” which is a central reason climate scientists have become so desperate in recent years.

While Obama understands the paramount nature of the climate issue, the media still does not. In the Washington Post, David Ignatius writes, “Obama continued this political reformation in recruiting his cabinet, which is so centrist it almost resembles a government of national unity.” A recent front-page Post headline read, “For Obama Cabinet, A Team of Moderates: In Picks, Few Hints About Policy Plans.” The story states:

On climate change, will the policy push be overseen more by Steven Chu, the nuclear physicist nominated to be energy secretary, or by Carol M. Browner, a close confidant of Al Gore’s who served as head of the Environmental Protection Agency under Bill Clinton and who will serve in the new role of White House energy czar? Where will this leave Obama’s EPA administrator, Lisa P. Jackson.

Note to the Washington Post: All of those people agree on the same radically pragmatic climate policy. The Post further editorialized that Obama should be called “pragmatist in chief.” Maybe so. But then, as Chris Hayes explained in the Nation, “pragmatism requires an openness to the possibility of radical solutions.” Obama himself explained his brand of pragmatism with crystal clarity when discussing why he picked Chu: “His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action.”

Pragmatists believe in science and make fact-based decisions. That’s why modern pragmatists like Obama and his Cabinet support the strongest energy and climate policy imaginable.

And yet here we have the New York Times declaring, “In Obama’s Team, Two Camps on Climate,” a statement that ignores the entire Cabinet, focusing only on Browner and National Economic Council chair Larry Summers. It attempts to recast the Obama administration as a replay of the Clinton administration.

It is true that when the Clinton administration was forming its position for the Kyoto climate treaty talks in 1997, Summers “argued that the United States would risk damaging the domestic economy if it set overly ambitious goals for reducing carbon emissions.” But the Times claims, “His view prevailed over those of officials arguing for tougher standards, among them Carol M. Browner,” then EPA administrator.

That is simply wrong. Clinton went with the toughest standard being considered by the administration. And then in Kyoto, Vice President Gore agreed to an even tougher standard than that!

I was one of the point persons for the Department of Energy in these discussions. The economists from the NEC, Council on Economic Advisers, and Treasury did everything in their power to weaken the targets. Those of us pushing for the strongest targets thought there were two camps. I figured the economists would win, since their economic models inevitably overestimate the cost of action and underestimate the cost of inaction

During 1997, I helped oversee a study by five U.S. national laboratories that examined what an aggressive technology-based strategy built around energy efficiency and renewable energy could achieve in terms of emissions reductions. That “Five Lab Study” concluded that the United States could meet the most aggressive Kyoto target being considered without raising the nation’s overall energy bill.

I remember Bill Clinton explaining at an October 1997 Georgetown conference why he ultimately ignored the advice of his economists. Clinton said his economic team had assured him that his balanced budget plan would be a job killer, so he pretty much took everything they said from that point on with a grain of salt. He concluded, “I’m convinced that the people in my Energy Department labs are absolutely right.”

The story goes that Abraham Lincoln once said to his Cabinet, “Seven nays and one aye; the ayes have it.” There never were two camps. And there still aren’t.

But the question remains: Can radical pragmatists preserve a livable climate? They can if we stop digging the hole we’re in. That means stopping the construction of coal plants that don’t capture and store most of their carbon dioxide. Fortunately, the Supreme Court decided against the Bush administration in 2007, declared carbon dioxide a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to start regulating it. So Obama almost certainly has all of the authority he needs now to block new dirty coal plants.

Obama needs to pass in 2009 the mother of all energy bills. Once and for all, we must begin the process of changing utility regulations that encourage overuse of electricity, and instead strongly encourage energy efficiency. We need a nationwide standard that requires all utilities to draw a significant percentage of power from renewable energy sources. We need an effort, comparable to Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, to build a smart, 21st-century grid that can enable concentrated solar thermal power from the Southwest and wind from the Midwest, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles everywhere.

Obama must begin high-level bilateral negotiations with China (or trilateral negotiations that include the European Union) to get a national commitment from the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter to cap their emissions no later than 2020. Such a deal would presumably be contingent on U.S. action, but would enable a much stronger domestic climate bill. We simply can’t solve the climate problem without Chinese action. And absent Chinese action in the next decade, the developed countries could never sustain the price for carbon dioxide needed to achieve meaningful reductions.

Obama must begin serious negotiations with both houses of Congress to write a climate bill that will reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels by 2020, and then to low levels by mid-century. The goal would be to bring this legislation to a vote in early 2010, ideally in conjunction with a China deal.

The goal of deferring the climate bill to 2010 is not merely to allow time to get China on board, but to undo the last eight years of disinformation and muzzling of scientists by the Bush administration. The American public — and media and cognoscenti — are not prepared for the scale of effort needed to preserve a livable climate. The Obama team needs to spend a considerable amount of time giving public speeches, holding informal meetings with key opinion makers, researching and publicizing major reports on the high cost of inaction and the relatively low cost of solutions. That simply can’t be done over the next few months, when the administration’s focus must be — and the media’s focus will be — on the grave economic crisis.

Moreover, 2009 needs to be focused on what can be achieved in a bipartisan fashion. If, as seems likely, conservatives remain stubbornly blind to the scientific reality, then passing the climate bill will likely descend into a traditional partisan fight. A pragmatist like Obama should relish the fight. After all, if the GOP wants to put itself on the side of humanity’s self-destruction, then that political battle is best held in an election year, after a lengthy public education campaign.

Obama’s Cabinet has been called a team of rivals, but in fact it is a team of the unrivaled — unrivaled in its knowledge of climate science, clean energy climate solutions and experience in getting things done.

I never imagined anyone would have the confidence and commitment to assemble such a group. Every one of these individuals understands that the future of the nation, the world and their place in history rests squarely on whether we prevent a climate catastrophe, whether the biggest polluting nations replace their entire energy systems in a few decades. I honestly don’t know if it is politically possible to preserve a livable climate — but if it is, these are the people to make it happen.


Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he oversees He is the author of "Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and the Politics." Romm served as acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT.

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