The $64,000 Question for Obama and McCain on Climate

by Bill Chameides | July 23rd, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 6 comments

Huffington Post Comments (5)

When it comes to addressing national climate change and energy policy, the focus has been on creating federal law. But the new president will have the power to order the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions on January 21, 2009. The question is: Will he?

In 1997, the Senate voted 95–0 to effectively reject the Kyoto Protocol. In 2003 and 2005, the Senate voted down bills introduced by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) that would have set a nationwide cap on greenhouse emissions. This past spring the Senate couldn’t even cut off debate to get a vote on the Warner-Lieberman Climate Security Act. Worse still, the House of Representatives has never even had a climate bill reach the floor.

Those of us who believe the United States must begin to bring its greenhouse gas emissions down have been left to groan the familiar loser’s chant: “wait till next year.” And with all that’s going on, can we have any realistic expectations that the long, arduous path required of a complex climate bill could actually begin on January 3, 2009 when the 111th Congress meets for the first time?

So how about taking another path, the presidential one?

On April 2, 2007 the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Massachusetts v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that, “Under the clear terms of the Clean Air Act, EPA can avoid taking further action (i.e., to regulate greenhouse gas emissions) only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or if it provides some reasonable explanation.”

Because of the Bush administration’s opposition to mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions –- despite the president’s recent shift concerning the seriousness of the global warming threat — the likelihood that EPA would actually act on the Supreme Court ruling was nil. Indeed, EPA administrator Steve Johnson has squelched any official discussion of EPA rule-making with respect to climate change.

But 2009 promises a whole new world for addressing climate. Both presidential candidates have sponsored or co-sponsored climate change legislation that would impose a declining cap on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (see here and here). Indeed Senator McCain with his long sponsorship of the McCain-Lieberman bill had been leading the way.

So couldn’t the new president do something about global warming right out of the gate? The Supreme Court thinks so. And it turns out that EPA staffers had already begun on the QT to draft a white paper on the legal mechanisms by which EPA could develop rules and regulations.

So here is the question I would like to put to Senators McCain and Obama during the presidential debates:

“Suppose you’ve won the election and are sworn in as president on January 20, 2009. When you wake up on January 21st, what do you do about climate change during your first day on the job: Do you take the initiative on climate change? Or do you waste precious time, pass the buck, and leave it to Congress to figure what to do and how to do it?”


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  1. Sara Hessenflow Harper
    Jul 23, 2008

    Dr. Chameides – first of all, what a thrill to read this blog. Working with you at EDF, I saw first hand your brilliance in action. I’m so glad to see your expertise now made available to the wide web world! Thanks for the post above. I wanted to ask your view of the T Boone Pickens Plan — which seems to be gathering a great deal of support and momentum. The gist of it is that we massively ramp up wind power in the Great Plains for electricity generation (which could comprise about 22% of electric power) — and take the natural gas that we would otherwise use on electric generation (that same 22%) and use it instead to fuel the transportation sector with compressed natural gas vehicles. You can check out the plan at I know this is not the full answer — but it seems to be a very positive step forward — and brings with it the right messenger and political support that has previously been so hard to generate for the climate change issue. As you know, I have long been an advocate of linking the energy security and climate change issues. Could this be a way to make this link and gather in more support for a addressing climate change?? Thanks! Sara Hessenflow Harper” title=”Politics & climate

  2. Michael Neal
    Jul 29, 2008

    Dr. Chameides I’m somewhat confused and would like your input. How reliable is the data regarding global warming? I’ve read the Earth is warming and I’ve read the Earth is not warming. If greenhouse gases (and I presume CO2 is the primary gas) are causing the Earth to warm now, what caused the Earth to warm during the last several Ice Ages? I haven’t seen that question asked or answered. If the EPA mandates rules that prove to be too costly, what nonpolitical recourse could there be to lessen the requirements of the rules? Finally, why should the USA impose these restrictions on it’s citizen’s ability to compete in a global market when nations such as Russia, China, and India are not and will not impose similar regulations on their economies? ” title=”The $64K ?

    • Erica Rowell
      Aug 12, 2008

      Dr. Chameides responds – Hi Michael. 1. The data on global warming are very reliable. Evidence of warming is shown in temperature measurements made on land, temperature measurements over the ocean, and temperature measurements made remotely from satellites. In addition glaciers and sea ice are melting all over the globe — hard to understand how ice would melt if things weren’t getting warmer 2. Global warming is a climatic phenomenon based on trends occurring over decades not year-to-year fluctuations, and on decadal time scales the globe is definitely warming. Eight of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in the past decade and the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1995. 3. Yes, the Earth’s climate has varied in the past due to natural causes. But it is a logical fallacy to conclude that because the climate varied due to natural causes in the past, the present warming must be due to natural causes. 4. We have a pretty good understanding of what caused the large climatic swings from ice ages to warm periods over the past 2 million years. These changes were triggered by subtle changes in the Earth’s rotation about the sun (called the Milankovich cycles) and then amplified by feedbacks involving the carbon cycle. This explanation does not apply to the current warming. 5. The job we have in front of us to cut greenhouse emissions is one that will take decades to accomplish — probably to the end of the century. If the going gets too rough or the science changes, there is nothing to stop Congress from changing the law. But you should be aware that most economic models predict that the costs of cutting greenhouse emissions will be relatively small as long as we allow markets to find the most effective and least costly solutions. 6. Actually Russia has joined the Kyoto Protocol and has already committed to cutting its emissions. 7. We need to get China and India to cut their emissions, no question. But by far most of the greenhouse gas burden in the atmosphere today came from the U.S. Do you think it is reasonable to ask China and India to cut their emissions if we are not willing to do the same? There are lots of ways to implement a program to cut emissions in the U.S. while providing strong inducements for China and India to join us and also protect our businesses from unfair competition if they don’t.” title=”Some answers

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