Scientists largely agree that aggressive steps need to be taken to slow and prepare for climate change. The glaciers in Yosemite are disappearing, wildfires and superstorms are ravaging the nation, and Arctic ice continues to melt at a record-breaking pace. In his second term, free from the pressure to campaign for reelection, President Obama can seize the moment to do something about this environmental crisis. Still, aggressive steps – taxing carbon, a large-scale switch to renewables, banning coal – may not be politically feasible, especially with a partisan Congress and a fragile economy. The president has made progress: enacting strict fuel standards that will force cars to get 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025; providing incentives to double electricity from solar and wind; and creating 2 million new acres of protected wilderness. But there's still a lot of work to do. "Obama can do a million things," says Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer and founder of Waterkeeper Alliance. "He can force coal to pay its true cost, end subsidies to carbon cronies, and deploy a compelling mix of moral and economic arguments." The temptation is to focus on issues that inflame the public, like the Keystone XL pipeline, but the president would do better to take a wider perspective. Keystone, for one, would pump only 830,000 barrels of oil from tar sands a day, about a third of the 2.3 million barrels of oil Canada already sends us, and a mere fraction of our heavily subsidized 19-million-barrel-a-day habit. We spoke to scientists, economists, and policy advisers, who recommended the most impactful environmental measures, ones that can be achieved over the course of the next four years. Here's their nine-point plan to protect the planet.
Speed the shift away from coal.
Coal accounts for 41 percent of the world's energy and remains the number one source of climate-change emissions. In the past four years, new environmental regulations on power plants, increased incentives for wind, and low natural-gas prices have resulted in a 13 percent decrease in coal's portion of domestic energy use. But we can accelerate that trend. "Coal is just criminal," says Kennedy. "Every aspect of its extraction, distribution, and deployment costs lives and imposes health impacts and huge costs."
The best tool Obama has to reduce coal use is to implement the EPA's existing Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which places limits on mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and other toxic emissions associated with coal. But the coal industry has been pressuring the EPA to reconsider the standard, pushing to weaken regulations that could affect dozens of decades-old, heavily-polluting coal plants like Indianapolis' Harding Street Station, which has been in operation for 54 years.
For those who think cutting coal is too expensive in a recession, we must recognize the massive, $60 billion annual health costs associated with burning this fossil fuel – everything from cardiovascular and respiratory illness to premature death. "You could pension off all the 80,000 workers in the coal industry for a tiny fraction of the medical bills due to burning coal," says Burton Richter, a Nobel laureate in physics.
Credit: IKONOS satellite image by Val Webb, ©2006 Geoeye