Lionel Richie was burning up the pop charts. Americans were freaking out over the release of “New Coke.” And few were giving much thought to climate change. But 1985 was the last year our planet enjoyed an average-temperature month.
According to federal scientists, no one under age 27 has ever experienced a month in which the global temperature wasn’t above the 20th century average.
Four years ago, just after President Obama was first sworn in, I, along with University of Oregon law professor Mary Wood, outlined in these pages why the new president could and should quickly address climate change, even in the absence of congressional action.
Now, in the wake of the president’s strong climate statements at his second inauguration, these arguments are more compelling than ever. And the problem has only gotten worse.
While temperatures in the United States have only risen 1.5 degrees thus far, a new federal report suggests that by the end of the century, temperatures could rise by as much as 10 degrees if the climate crisis is left unchecked.
Scientists tell us this dramatic change to our climate will increase the risk of freak storms, damaging droughts and record heat waves. Today’s extreme weather may well be surpassed by nasty surprises we can’t yet even imagine. If we’re already experiencing a “climate on steroids,” as some scientists have suggested, we are fast working our way toward something like a climate on methamphetamine.
While everyone with their head out of the sand knows we have a big problem, some have the mistaken idea that our dysfunctional Congress leaves our nation unable to respond to this threat.
The truth is Congress has already given the president a great deal of authority to address this problem — authority that so far he has not used as ambitiously as he must. The president could significantly reduce carbon emissions in the next four years simply by fully implementing the Clean Air Act, and Congress doesn’t have to lift a finger.
The Eugene City Council recognized these facts last July with its vote to join dozens of “Clean Air Cities” representing tens of millions of people — all calling on President Obama to use the Clean Air Act to its fullest extent to address climate disruption.
It is true that the Obama administration has begun to use the Clean Air Act in the climate fight. Unfortunately, the application has been slow and timid.
Regulations on carbon emissions from new power plants, for example, did not go nearly as far as they could have and still are not finalized. Fuel standards for new passenger vehicles, while better than nothing, lock us for years into gas mileage ratings that are and will remain inferior to those in Europe, Japan and China.
These tentative actions just scratch the surface of what is possible — and what is needed. Obama has the authority, for example, to write rules limiting emissions from existing power plants, the nation’s single largest source of climate-disrupting gases, but he has not said whether his administration will do so in his second term.
The administration has even undermined other countries’ climate efforts. Emissions from the aviation industry are growing faster than those of any other transportation sector. But instead of using the Clean Air Act to write carbon-emission rules for planes, the Obama administration has fought regulations Europe developed to address this problem. That has to stop.
With the crisis deepening, the president must match his actions to his rhetoric. The Clean Air Act allows for setting national standards for the most pervasive air pollutants. Smog and lead have been successfully regulated in this way. Once set, these standards give states strong tools to bring pollutant concentrations down. A national standard for carbon could be an incredibly potent weapon in the climate fight.
Having worked for the air office at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, I would never suggest that writing such regulations would be quick or easy. And I am glad that the president is finally talking about the single issue that will define the 21st century. But we need action, and we need it fast.
President Obama says he wants to address climate change. His spokesperson has suggested that new details will be forthcoming in a couple of weeks, during the State of the Union address. Science-deniers and polluting industries are already howling in protest.
The question for us, especially the young, is simple: Can we bring more political pressure than those who profit from pollution and do our part to help persuade this president, finally, to act?
Tim Ream of San Francisco, a graduate of the University of Oregon School of Law, is an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.