With the inauguration of a new president in January come widespread expectations of a more aggressive federal approach to confronting global warming.
Whoever wins the White House, he will not lack for advice on the topic.
This week, a coalition of scientific societies and university organizations is slated to hand the Obama and McCain campaigns detailed steps and budget estimates for improving America’s ability to monitor and forecast climate trends and severe weather. This October, the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), based at the University of Colorado at Denver, is expected to offer up an exhaustive agenda for a president’s first 100 and 1,000 days.
The courses for action, according to a detailed draft that PCAP released in December 2007, include those the president can take quickly through executive order, as well as those the president can take in concert with Congress.
For many, global warming is becoming an increasingly urgent issue. Last year’s reports from the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that if countries want to try to hold the increase in global average temperatures by the end of the century to 3.6 degrees F. above preindustrial levels, they have a 10- to 15-year window in which to act.
Since the reports were issued, James Hansen, a noted climate scientist who heads the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University in New York, has argued that to avoid some of the projected worst effects, concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must fall below levels cited by the IPCC.
Based on campaign positions, both major-party presidential candidates back far more activist national and international approaches to global warming than has the Bush administration. The prospect of change appears to be drawing more participants into the advisory efforts of groups that feel they didn’t have the ear of the current administration.
“We’ve done this kind of transition document for each new administration for a number of years,” as well as for incumbents heading into a second term, says Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society in Boston. But this year’s effort “is more extensive in some ways and involves more organizations.”
That partnership includes longtime collaborator University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), the American Geophysical Union, the National Association of Land-Grant Colleges, and other professional and science-advocacy organizations.
For its part, PCAP formed with the 44th presidency specifically in mind, notes David Orr, a professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College in Ohio and member of the project’s advisory committee. Its founders were members of President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development.
The premise behind the effort: Climate represents what Dr. Orr calls the keystone in a new president’s larger economic, national-security, environmental agenda. The 100-day agenda is “patterned a bit after Franklin Roosevelt’s, with the exception that his was not very well thought out.”
President Roosevelt drew a great deal of political flak early in his first term from opponents insisting that he was exceeding his authority, Orr says. President Bush has also come under fire for what many see as his overly robust interpretation of executive authority. So for a reality check, PCAP turned its highest-priority recommendations over to the University of Colorado Law School’s Center for Energy and Environmental Security at Boulder.
In volumes released in February and last month, the center’s analyses – which cite statute or case law – suggest that the president has a great deal of authority to act, particularly when it comes to the way the federal government itself is managed.
Within the first 100 days, for instance, a president could sign an executive order that sets zero net-emissions goals for federal buildings. He could order the Environmental Protection Agency to begin regulating greenhouse gases. Or he could require federal agencies to include greenhouse-gas emissions among the effects they must report when weighing the environmental impact of their projects.
He could also send a strong signal by outlining overarching national climate and energy policies, which could include a call for aggressive greenhouse-gas reductions with interim and long-term targets.
“We are promoting a proactive president,” says Alaine Ginocchio, who was the lead author for both law-related analyses. “But that does not mean we’re promoting somebody acting outside of credible, legitimate bounds.” [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Ms. Ginocchio's first and last names.]
So far, the two campaigns have been receptive to the efforts, notes William Becker, PCAP’s executive director and a former regional official for the US Department of Energy.
How influential these efforts are remains to be seen. “These documents may help set some general boundary conditions” for action, but historically, the counsel that wields the most influence typically comes from groups with tight relationships to a campaign, says Roger Pielke Jr., who specializes in science and energy policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder.