During the last presidential race, Republicans issued a bumper sticker that read “All Sizzle, No Steak” next to a picture of Barack Obama. It was the bumper sticker that didn’t stick and today, Republicans are eating those words. During his first 100 days in office, Obama has served up far more steak than Republicans are willing to digest.
A check of the Obama-Biden campaign platform shows the President has made progress on an impressive number of his pre-election promises on energy and climate, not the least of them an economic stimulus bill that provides the biggest green energy investment in the U.S. history.
Given the Bush Administration’s eight-year climate fast, we’ll need even more meat in the second 100 days and in many 100 days to come. In fact, stabilizing the climate and maintaining that stability is a standing commitment that every future president must make.
So, what’s on the president’s menu for the next 100 days? The honeymoon period – rudely cut short by the “Party of No” on Capitol Hill – traditionally lasts from Inauguration to Congress’s August recess. These are the months when a new president usually has best cooperation from the legislative branch, before the next congressional election begins fogging up the political climate in Washington.
But the party-poopers trying to spoil the honeymoon haven’t deterred the president so far. Here’s hoping he uses the next three months as impressively as the last, serving up lots more steak – and some sizzle, too. I’ll propose some steak here and some sizzle in Part 2.
Improve federal energy management: Retrofitting federal buildings for greater energy efficiency – one of the goals of the stimulus bill – is a good first step for the world’s largest energy consumer, but it’s only the beginning. President Obama should issue a new executive order to beef up the Federal Energy Management Program – for example, by creating the specific greenhouse gas reduction targets removed by the Bush Administration. A good place to start is the full menu of reforms developed for PCAP by the Alliance to Save Energy.
Make emissions visible: There’s a saying in the business world: “You can’t change what you don’t measure.” Likewise, it’s hard to pay attention to what we can’t see. The president should take a series of steps to make greenhouse gas emissions more visible. Federal agencies should be required to include climate impact assessments in all relevant budget proposals. The president’s annual budget submission to the Hill should include a climate impact estimate. His yearly state of the union address should report on the nation’s progress on emissions reductions and energy independence. He should recommend that Congress attach climate impact statements to its major legislation, including the national budget; if Congress doesn’t comply, Obama should direct the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to prepare impact statements before he signs the bills.
The Administration should require that federally funded projects include an evaluation of climate impacts in their Environmental Impact Statements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
President Obama should propose modifying the energy efficiency labels we now find on new cars and appliances to include greenhouse gas impacts – for example, an estimate of CO2 per mile on petroleum-powered vehicles or annual emissions for appliances based on the worst-case assumption that their electricity is generated by conventional coal-fired power plants.
Reform federal subsidies: Now that the Environmental Protection Agency has declared that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health and welfare, we can’t mistake carbon subsidies for good public policy. OMB should conduct the first-ever inventory of federal programs and tax provisions that directly or indirectly promote greenhouse gas emissions. OMB should make the inventory public. The President should appoint a group comparable to the Base Closing Commission in the 1990s to develop a list of carbon subsidies that Congress must vote up or down as a package.
In addition, the Secretary of Energy should direct its National Renewable Energy Laboratory to conduct a “grid parity analysis” – a study that estimates when solar, wind and other renewable energy technologies whose prices are going down are likely to become cheaper than fossil fuels whose prices are going up because of carbon pricing and other market factors. If conservative projections find, for example, that electricity from coal-fired power plants equipped with carbon capture and storage systems will be far more expensive than electricity from solar and wind, we may want to take a second look at spending billions of taxpayer dollars on clean coal R&D.
Create Clean Energy Enterprise Development Zones (CEEDZ): The Administration should identify regions that will be most adversely affected by climate policy – for example, those whose economies are dependent on fossil energy production. Carbon pricing; better environmental regulation of the oil, gas and coal industries; EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and other emerging policies and market factors will mean less consumption of fossil energy in the years ahead. Or so we hope.
On the other hand, renewable energy portfolio standards, the emerging world market for clean energy, tax incentives for renewable technologies and energy efficiency, carbon pricing and government procurement of green technologies will create new markets for clean energy resources and equipment. We’ll need new and modernized manufacturing plants to produce and assemble the many components of wind turbines, solar energy systems, bio-energy and geothermal equipment, and low-carbon high-efficiency vehicles and buildings. (In a very informative exercise, Duke University, the Environmental Defense Fund and several unions have begun mapping existing manufacturing plants that are likely to benefit from emerging green technologies.)
The Administration should help oil, coal and gas regions make the transition to the new energy economy by attracting green industries, using current federal job training, infrastructure and economic development programs. Our message to coal miners in Appalachia or to oil workers in the West should not be “climate policy will take your jobs.” It should be: “If you start now, you will find new and more stable prosperity in the new energy economy”.
Rural areas should be eligible for CEEDZ designations, too. Renewable energy production should become a core strategy for rural revitalization in those regions the old economy left behind. Wind farms, solar farms, energy crops, methane conversion, bio-refineries, and land and forest carbon sequestration services all should become sources of income, jobs and property tax revenues in rural areas.
Protect Ecosystem Services: The president should appoint a federal task force led by the Department of Interior to map and quantify the value of “ecosystem services” threatened in the United States by climate change and human development. These are the important and often underappreciated services that natural systems provide, such as water and air purification, recreation and carbon sequestration. He should direct Interior to update its management programs for public lands with the goal of restoring and protecting these services.
For example, the U.S. Forest Service should create a forest management plan that integrates the goals of carbon sequestration, wildfire mitigation, wildlife habitat preservation, renewable energy production and reforestation of areas devastated by insects, fires or logging and mining. The federal plan can be used as a model for the management of state and private forests.
Create new international collaborations: The president should propose that the United Nations create an Intergovernmental Panel on Ocean Conservation – in effect an IPCC for oceans. We need to convene the world’s best ocean scientists in a sustained effort to better understand the many threats to ocean ecology and to inform new national and international policies to deal with ocean warming, the destruction of coral reefs, sea-level rise, overfishing, pollution and other problems.
We need better collaboration, too, between the world’s research institutions on climate change mitigation and adaptation technologies. The U.S. should lead an initiative on collaborative research, development and demonstration projects by the world’s leading researchers – a facile program that can respond to new research needs with a minimum of bureaucracy and red tape. DOE’s new ARPA-E program might be a model. The Global Green New Deal being developed by the United Nations Environment Programme should serve as an initial RD&D roadmap.
President Obama should propose that oil-importing nations band together in an Organization of Oil Importing Countries, or OPIC – the consumers’ counterpart to OPEC – to collaborate on technologies and policies that reduce members’ dependence on petroleum. The economic meltdown proves how vulnerable we are to one another’s actions in this global economy. One nation’s oil crisis can easily become everyone’s crisis. For economic stability, energy security and a better climate, the world must back away from oil.
Overhaul Transportation Policy: Federal transportation policy is in bad shape. Its tires have gone flat, it has run out of gas and it’s headed in the wrong direction. Today, road building is given more taxpayer support than mass transit. Federal policy rewards communities that build more roads, consume more fuel and drive more miles. It encourages us to design neighborhoods and cities to move cars, not people and goods.
Federal transportation programs are scheduled for reauthorization by Congress this fall. This will be the moment to map a new direction to a safe, affordable, convenient, low-energy, low-carbon transportation system. The president should propose a major overhaul and challenge Congress to adopt it. For starters, our national goal should be to reduce vehicle miles traveled 20 percent by 2020. Many other important reforms are included in an action plan PCAP commissioned from the Center for Neighborhood Technology – a group that has just won the MacAthur genius award for NGOs. Other groups also are generating good ideas, including theSurface Transportation Policy Project, the Rails to Trails Conservancy, Reconnecting Americaand the America 2050 project of the Regional Plan Association.
Protect the Commons: President Obama should establish an executive policy that federal officials have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the commons – in other words, the air, water, oceans and atmosphere that belong to all of us and to future generations. What would that mean? Here is one definition of fiduciary responsibility:
A fiduciary is a person or entity that is empowered to hold the assets of another. A fiduciary relationship requires responsibility, knowledge, expertise, trust, good faith and honesty. The fiduciary also has the obligation to act in the best interests of the client and to avoid conflicts of interest if a situation arises that has a potential benefit to the individual or entity acting as the fiduciary.
In regard to the commons, the “client” is all of us, present and future. Obama’s senior people should meet with federal employee unions to work out fair implementation of this policy, and then direct the Office of Personnel Management to develop model position descriptions and performance standards that institutionalize the policy in hiring, promotions and federal officials’ annual performance reviews.
Those are some of the meaty ideas President Obama should set as his energy-climate goals for the next 100 days. But this summer should be a time for some presidential sizzle, too – an initiative or two that reaches beyond Washington, D.C., to get the entire nation involved in building the new energy economy. For one idea on sizzle, see Part 2.
P.S. – Does anybody know why beef has become such an important factor in politics? Walter Mondale’s debate question -- “Where’s the beef?” – has become a classic moment in American presidential elections. Politicians describe their opponents these days with the old Texas insult, “All hat, no cattle”. And a politician who puts on a good show but lacks substance is “all sizzle, no steak”. Politics apparently is not a place for vegetarians.
William S. Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Plan (PCAP), a project of the University of Colorado, Wirth Chair, charged with producing a 100 day action plan on climate change for the next President of the United States, and the author of THE 100 DAY ACTION PLAN TO SAVE THE PLANET, available in eBook format from St. Martins Griffin.