State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

What Obama Can and Should Do About Climate Change

Photo: Talk Radio News Service

As President Obama embarks on his second term, many Americans are hoping that the extreme weather of 2012 will mark a sea change and finally goad him into making meaningful efforts to deal with climate change.

During his first term, Obama disappointingly failed to take much significant action against climate change, but in his second inaugural speech, he said, ”We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” This is real cause for hope.

According to many economists, public officials, scientists and environmentalists, the best strategy to fight climate change is a carbon tax, which would tax carbon emissions then return the money to taxpayers through a dividend check or a tax credit. With the House of Representatives still controlled by Republicans, however, a carbon tax is politically unfeasible and a White House spokesman has announced, “The administration has not proposed nor is planning to propose a carbon tax.”

So what other actions can President Obama take to fight climate change?  I asked some experts from the Earth Institute and affiliated centers to weigh in on what Obama can and should do.

Klaus Jacob

Special Research Scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

I disagree with the notion that there should be no carbon tax (or at least cap and trade), albeit as long as the House of Representatives has a pro-carbon majority it remains a long-term goal. The short-term priorities are many: provide incentives for smart electric grids across the nation that allow cogeneration to feed into the grid; provide further incentives for energy efficiency, non-fossil power generation (wind, photo-voltaic) and for the phase-out of coal fired plants; and place more emphasis on waste reduction and waste transformation into energy (instead of allowing methane to leak from landfills).

Another measure to take is strengthening the role of the Environmental Protection Agency within the executive branch, i.e. appoint a strong EPA leader, and take his or her advice seriously, rather than sidelining the agency in many important executive decisions. On climate change adaptation, President Obama needs to see to it that the FEMA National Flood Insurance Program will be fundamentally overhauled to make its rates, flood insurance rate maps and regulations fully compatible with actual flood risks. This includes making sure that coastal flood zone maps take into account sea level rise at least 50 years into the future.

Photo: World Development Movement

James E. Hansen

Director, Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Obama should collect a fee from fossil fuel companies in proportion to the amount of carbon in the fuel (oil, gas, coal).  This fee should gradually rise over time. One hundred percent of the money collected should be distributed to legal adult residents. People using less fossil fuel than average would receive more in their dividend than they pay via increased prices. This is called fee-and-dividend or clean energy credit. It provides a great incentive to reduce fossil fuel use and encourages business people and entrepreneurs to develop no-carbon and low-carbon energies. It is not a tax—not one dime goes to the government.

 Ben Orlove

Co-director, Center for Research on Environmental Decisions

Obama should establish a system to measure U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses like methane and nitrous oxide, and to measure carbon sinks as well. This would be less controversial than some other steps, and yet would be important from a policy perspective (we can’t manage something that we haven’t measured). Having numbers will allow people to compare years and assess trends, to compare sources and see where improvements are needed. Numbers will help policy-makers make decisions, and help the public become engaged with the issue, a necessary step to advancing the policy process.

Michael Gerrard

Director, Center for Climate Change Law

One important thing the Obama administration can do to fight climate change—in addition to continuing its use of the many available tools under the Clean Air Act—is to make energy efficiency a central part of governmental decision-making.  Whenever the government is considering undertaking, financing or permitting the construction of a building, infrastructure or other facilities, it should look closely at whether the direct and indirect energy consumption of the project can be reduced. Whenever the government considers other relevant policies, such as the procurement of equipment, goods and services, the management of land, the regulation of resources, and many others, energy efficiency should be a major factor. The National Environmental Policy Act and other laws provide ample tools for doing this.

Lisa Goddard

Director, International Research Institute for Climate and Society

Most of the devastating impacts that the U.S. has experienced over the years—including the last two—have been delivered through extreme weather events and year-to-year climate variability. It is true that climate change could make these worse, and we may be seeing evidence of that already (2012 was the hottest year on record for the U.S.). However, better resilience and preparation of communities and the nation as a whole requires good information for early warning and early action on climate variability—as much or more than for long-term climate change. This requires sustained adequate observing networks, state-of-the-art models for weather and climate prediction, reliable forecast systems that can translate model predictions into relevant warnings and call for action, and an informed public that can understand the information and act on it.

Thus, in addition to the science, we need clear communication, mechanisms that foster communication between a wide range of communities, and infrastructure that can support the sharing of information, data and experience. Our government would do well to invest in making sure the country is adequately informed and prepared for the risks and opportunities of climate change that lie ahead.

Scott Barrett

Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics, The Earth Institute

Rejecting a carbon tax strikes me as an odd move, given that it is the most efficient way of addressing climate change, and raises revenue in the bargain. We shouldn’t think of a carbon tax in isolation, but as part of a larger package of reform, to be combined with other measures for addressing climate change, especially research and development, and other measures for improving the efficiency of the economy, such as reducing the effective marginal tax rate at the lower end of the income range.

The U.S. should adopt policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions on its own. But ultimately only global emissions matter, and U.S. policy will be many times more effective if it can leverage emission reductions in other countries. International climate negotiations have failed, but that is only because we have taken the wrong approach. We need to break this problem up into manageable pieces.

The U.S. should continue to press for a new agreement on limiting the emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), possibly under an amendment to the Montreal Protocol. We should negotiate new agreements on standards for international airline travel under the International Civil Aviation Organization and for international maritime transport under the International Maritime Organization. We should negotiate new standards agreements for critical sectors, such as steel and aluminum, backed up (like all the other agreements mentioned before) by the credible threat to restrict trade.

The aim should be to stimulate innovation and create a new level playing field for the global economy. If we don’t do this, if we continue to negotiate as we have for the past 20 years, we will get the same result—no progress


Climate change and its extreme weather effects will continue to impact our country and the world in the future. Our government needs to act promptly and effectively to help the nation adapt to these conditions and to ward off the even more severe impacts the future will bring if we do not control our greenhouse gas emissions.

For the latest information on how climate change is affecting the U.S., the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s new draft National Climate Assessment has just been released for public review. Integrating scientific information from numerous sources and sectors, it reports to the President, Congress and the nation on already observed changes, the current status of the climate, and anticipated trends for the future—for all regions of the country. Individuals and groups may examine the current version of the report and provide comments aimed at improving it until April 12.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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david dunn
11 years ago

Dear Mr Obama and the rest of the world.

Introduce a Replacement Natural Resource Tax has to provide long term benefits and changes the mindset of all inderviduals, governments, businesses alike. In fact we are in this all together and this involves us all at all levels and educates us all into protection of and best use of all resources, not just carbon based fuels.

– Creates a labour driven economy with more labour requirement.
-Everybody pays no labour,capital,corporation and in fact nearly all other taxes except perhaps a death tax to redistribute wealth.
-Provide incentives for all in society equally and fairly -To make best use of all resources not just fossil fuels.
-The consumer pays through their consumption for all the damage and pollution done to the environment.
-Reduced overall tax take therefore reduced taxation saving up to 50%, subject to models and studies to be completed.
-Simpler and easy to understand taxation for all except direct natural resource users.
-Re-invigorated business sector with better understanding of the true value of the resources they use.
-Consumers have direct control over resource damage by what and how they purchase toe goods and services they desire.
-Complete change in the mindset of everyone in society
-Encapsulates all the best of a carbon tax, Ex tax,Land tax, as well as providing a bonus for all of less tax , less resource use and maximize reuse and recycling whilst employing more labour and the reduce the wastage of excessive tax collection costs,and high tax accountants and stopping almost all tax fraud, avoidance and tax evasion as there will be fewer paying tax directly.
– Remain within a capitalist system to maintain the vigor and technological advances that we change the way we all live.

The cons
-Is the the will power there to change?
-Many are greedy and only want more, rather than willing to share more equally and fairly all resources.
-The lack of willingness to accept that the rich will have have less and share despite having supposedly of high moral and ethical values of all religions.
-downright stubbornness for any change.

As all your commentators suggest, change has to occur if we are to have a society we can all live and prosper in for the future,The question is what to and how quickly, my answer is now and within 1 term of office to change to a fundamental framework as described above.


Why is their no or little research on modeling fiscal systems away from the present ones, A fresh look, Out of the box thinking in economics, putting the planet and environment first not the greed of inderviduals and man?

11 years ago

[…] of the Planet (SP) continued to contemplate Obama’s climate change program in the second term.  In doing so, SP surveys climate change experts from across the country. CCC finds James […]