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.
Stop, rather than subsidize, construction in high-risk zones.
The president and Congress should cut federal subsidies that keep the price of insurance in some high-risk zones (flood plains, coastal areas threatened by rising seas, and regions prone to wildfires) artificially – and disastrously – low. "If we had never created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the private market would be charging much higher premiums and it would be much more of a deterrent for people living in these places," says Eileen Fretz, director of flood management at the non-profit, American Rivers. While we're not likely to completely end government-backed insurance, last June Congress passed legislation that cut NFIP funding for businesses, second homes, and repeat beneficiaries (that is, homes that flooded multiple times). This is a good start, but we need to do more: stop giving taxpayer protection, and indirectly encouraging development, to communities behind levees. We also need to actively protect our most valuable flood protection infrastructure – wetlands, barrier islands, and dune beaches. Similar opportunities lie in the nation's wildfire "red zones," where the government is spending $3 billion a year on wildfire protection. "We ain't seen nothing yet," says Ray Rasker, an economist and director of Headwaters Economics. Only 16 percent of private wildland now has homes, he says. "Put climate change on top of new development, and you have a crisis." He suggests cutting support for construction of at-risk homes, doing away with breaks like the federal mortgage tax deduction.
Credit: Mint Images/Frans Lanting