Barack Obama the candidate pledged five years ago to set the country on a path to reduce its greenhouse emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels. That is the mark scientists advise reaching by the middle of the century as a necessary insurance policy against severe disruptions to the planet’s climate. At one point, Congress and the White House appeared ready to adopt a mechanism, a market-based system of cap and trade, a Republican idea, for pursuing the goal.
That now seems long ago. The threat of climate change hardly made an appearance in the 2012 presidential campaign. It did surface in the president’s State of the Union address, the White House even adding a welcome element of urgency. A week ago, the president advanced the cause in a much bigger way, delivering a speech that framed the challenge for the country and proposed concrete steps for moving forward.
There are no illusions about a divided Congress making a contribution. The president largely discussed what his administration can do on its own — on three fronts, reducing carbon emissions through rules and standards, fortifying cities and states against the impact of climate change and launching a new effort to rally other nations to take collective action.
All of it reflected the direction required, especially in view of the International Energy Agency warning recently that the planet’s temperature could rise 9 degrees by the end of the century, or nothing short of catastrophic. The Supreme Court has confirmed that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to curb greenhouse emissions. Already the agency has set rules for new power plants. The next step must be to curb sufficiently emissions at existing power plants, something that will take a decade or more to achieve.
The president rightly wants to complement such action with further incentives and investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Water levels in New York City are a foot higher than a century ago, Hurricane Sandy bringing more devastation as a result. So the city is making improvements along its coastline. Other vulnerable communities are taking similar steps. The president wants the federal government to mobilize as a partner in such protection.
No question, the United States cannot address on its own a global problem. Still, as the president argues, this country must take the lead, the largest economy and the second-largest carbon-emitter seizing the initiative and thus in a stronger position to prod and push others.
The immediate goal the president has set, a 17 percent reduction below 2005 levels by the end of the decade, isn’t the ambitious one of his first campaign. Actually, the country is more than half way to the mark, due mostly to the sluggish economy and cleaner natural gas. Now the president must press hard to follow through on the commitment he made in his speech, not just to the numbers but to raising awareness, starting with the higher cost of failing to act, his administration using the next three years to mobilize Americans and the rest of the world to stem climate change.