In stem cell research, President Obama plans to keep the politics out of the science. But not so for global warming. He's ignoring key advice from most climate scientists that developed countries must act quickly to reduce carbon emissions. To Mr. Obama, the politics of avoiding a public backlash against tough curbs on CO2 trumps the science.
The evidence for early and drastic action is clear to the body set up by the UN to develop a scientific consensus on global warming.
By 2020, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wants developed nations to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 25 percent below the level in 1990. Such action is needed to prevent the worst of climate change, the IPCC says, and "to avoid lock-in of carbon-intensive technologies."
Europe aims for a 20 percent drop with a 30 percent target if other countries follow. But Obama begs to differ, both with the European Union and the IPCC's scientists. He wants only a 20 percent reduction below the 2005 level in the US – not the 1990 level – by 2020. Not only is that well shy of the scientific consensus, but consider this: US emissions have risen 17 percent since 1990. [Editor's note: An earlier version incorrectly gave a number for IPCC-related scientists.]
The Obama administration's rhetoric on global warming doesn't match its policy. His envoy on climate change, Todd Stern, said last week, "We need to be guided by science," or what he calls "the unforgiving math of accumulating emissions." And his White House climate change czar, Carol Browner, said two years ago: "We have the science... We can stop global warming. Anything less would be a felony against the future."
Obama could act immediately to meet IPCC targets without waiting for Congress. With the stroke of a pen, the Environmental Protection Agency could set rules on all emissions of carbon dioxide. That would fulfill a 2007 Supreme Court decision that ordered the EPA to decide whether CO2 is an endangering pollutant under the Clean Air Act and, if so, begin to regulate it.
President Bush ignored that order. Why is Obama doing the same? Because such EPA action would result in emission reductions for everything from farms to coal-fired power plants to automobiles. The EPA might first start with autos, but lawsuits would force it to go further. And by law, it cannot take cost into consideration.
EPA chief Lisa Jackson hints she may issue a ruling any day. But that may just be a way to pressure Congress to accept the weak targets offered by Obama. By way of excuse, Mr. Stern says, "We need to be very mindful of what the dictates of science are, and of the art of the possible."
What is possible is that tight curbs on emissions now would likely force many US industries to transplant themselves overseas and lay off American workers. But unless the US quickly adopts the IPCC targets, there is the risk of failure for global negotiations aimed at cementing a post-Kyoto climate-change treaty by December.
Some in Congress are even more hesitant to act. They would merely subsidize "clean" energies for now as a half measure rather then set a cap or tax on CO2. But that would not help forge a new treaty.
If Obama wants to be consistent in letting science lead his policies, he should not let the politics in Washington stand in the way of saving the planet.