A Green Agenda for Obama's First 100 Days

Posted: 12 January 2009

Yale Environment 360, a new environmental website launched by the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, asked a wide-ranging group of environmental activists, scientists, and thinkers to answer the following question: If you were advising Barack Obama, what would you tell him are the most important environmental and energy initiatives that he should launch during his first 100 days? The results are reproduced here by special arrangement with Yale Environment 360.

Although the respondents - including entrepreneur Paul Hawken, Rajendra Pachauri of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, activist Van Jones, and green investing leader Mindy Lubber - represent a broad range of interests, they were largely in agreement on how best to solve the current economic and environmental challenges.

Basically, they agree that weaning the country off fossil fuels and onto renewable sources of energy is the single best way to rebuild the U.S. economy; that Obama must use all the tools at his disposal - from invoking the Clean Air Act for regulating greenhouse gas emissions to persuading the new Congress to put a price on carbon - to tackle climate change and spur the move to alternative energy; that under an Obama administration the United States must lead in forging a new global climate change treaty; and that, given the rapidity of global warming, Obama must be made fully aware of the "scary" scientific facts - as environmentalist Bill McKibben puts it - and move with a sense of urgency.

Here are their responses:

Bill McKibben Rajendra K. Pachauri Mindy Lubber
Paul Hawken Joseph Romm Frances Beinecke
Fred Krupp David W. Orr Van Jones William K. Reilly
Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich Betsy Taylor Bill Chameides

Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben, author, scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and founder of 350.org.

It seems to me that job number one with climate change involves Obama sitting down with his new employees — most importantly the world's premier climatologist, Jim Hansen at NASA — and making sure he has a full grounding in the latest climate science. The new president needs to understand what the cutting edge is telling us: that the targets and goals of even two or three years ago are insufficient — 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere has become the new red line.

If Obama understands that, much else will eventually flow — especially a much deeper examination of whether coal can continue to be a part of the way we power this planet. Without a deep and scary sense of the science, Obama will do lots of good and useful things, but nothing that adds up to the scale of change that we actually need. So I think the first hundred days should be less about action and more about information gathering.

Our one hope is that Obama is as smart as he seems — that he can assimilate the complex but not especially technical science, reach a conclusion about who is right, and then set policy. Scientific realism has to drive political realism in this case, because as the problem is currently understood in Washington, political realism won't come anywhere near grappling with it.

Rajendra K. Pachauri
Rajendra K. Pachauri
Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

I believe the most important initiative that President Obama should undertake would be to announce an ambitious plan for reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases on par with what the European Union has put forward — namely the 20-20-20 plan. This would require the U.S. to cut its emissions by 20 per cent over 1990 levels, as well as generate 20 per cent of its electricity through renewable energy sources, by 2020. Everything else would flow out of this set of goals, because business and industry would take immediate action in developing new technologies and refining existing ones to make them economically viable before 2020.

One major area in which the new President could bring about a major structural change would be to strengthen passenger railway transport in the U.S. by providing low interest loans to build high-speed lines that would lure passengers away from air travel. Simultaneously, the new administration must mandate stringent mileage standards to produce energy-efficient cars. States and local governments should be provided with financial support to carry out energy-efficiency retrofits in existing buildings and ensure much higher targets of energy efficiency in new construction.

The U.S. should also donate liberally to the adaptation fund that hopefully will be part of the new agreement on climate change to be negotiated by the end of 2009 in Copenhagen. Several poor countries that bear no responsibility for the increase in greenhouse gases will need major resources to adapt to the impacts of climate change, and as a matter of international justice, the U.S. must play a large role in these adaptation efforts.

I would tell the new President that all these measures would not only meet the challenge of climate change and establish the willingness of the U.S. to be part of the solution, but would also ensure energy security for the U.S. in the future and create much-needed new employment.

Mindy Lubber
Mindy Lubber
Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a U.S. coalition of investors, environmental groups, and public interest groups working with companies on sustainability issues. She also directs the Investor Network on Climate Risk.

Barack Obama’s presidency comes at an extraordinary moment. Our economy is reeling, our planet is overheating, and our national security is unstable. Yet the convergence of these crises offers him a pivotal opportunity to reset the course of this nation and to reform the instruments of our society to assure a future that is livable, safe, and just for everyone.

In his first 100 days, the new president must move quickly to pass a recovery package that not only jumpstarts the economy, but also catalyzes a green and sustainable future — one that creates new business opportunities, triggers new jobs, and helps heal the environment.

We believe that investors, companies, and those who work for them are waiting for the signals from Washington to begin this work. Those signals should come quickly, and we recommend they include these specific steps:

  • Stimulate the economy through investments in clean energy technology, energy efficiency, green-collar jobs, and training.
  • Lay the groundwork for legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.
  • Work with Congress to end tax incentives and subsidies for high carbon-emitting technologies and projects.
  • Enact mandates that 20 percent of the nation’s electricity come from renewable power by 2020 and at least 30 percent by 2030.
  • Instruct the Securities and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded companies to disclose the risks and opportunities they face from climate change.
  • Institute financial reforms to require honest accounting of the financial risks that companies and investors face from climate change and other sustainability threats.
  • Direct the EPA to issue California’s clean car waiver, allowing it and 18 other states to implement stringent fuel efficiency standards.
  • Re-engage and provide strong leadership in the international climate negotiation process.

Paul Hawken
Paul Hawken
Paul Hawken, environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and best-selling author.

The single most important task at hand for the new administration is the economy. The most powerful tool to address deflation, joblessness, and negative GDP growth is energy-source distribution and efficiency. I believe we need to approach energy as a moon shot project, not an incremental change in efficiency and carbon content. The U.S. should commit $6 trillion to $8 trillion to retrofit the entire country in ten to fifteen years. This includes transport, the electrical grid, electric storage, biofuels, solar, solar thermal, geothermal, wind, and building retrofits for energy efficiency. This would be a massive amount of debt if seen traditionally, but it should be seen as investment.

While there would be inflationary pressures created by this vast change in infrastructure, it would create more jobs than any other program, be highly visible in all towns and communities, create a national sense of purpose, enhance security, raise morale, stimulate innovation and investment in research, and recreate the American economy.

I recognize that the administration is committed to all the above, except for the scale. It is critical to anticipate that the precipitous drop in oil prices from their historic high of $147 a barrel to under $40 is undermining, if not eliminating, investment in new oil production. When the economy recovers in 2010-11, there simply won't be sufficient supply, and we will revert quickly to overpriced oil. The commitment to this level of funding and timing will ameliorate oil prices to a certain degree. Without this, I am afraid we will be caught flat-footed again without the level of internal commitment that will allow us to become energy independent in a reasonable time. Over the suggested time frame, we are talking about an investment equal to approximately 3% of GDP. The return on the investment will be spectacular. It is time for the government to create a set of books like businesses, with capital investment separated from revenue and expenses. And it is time that America invests in itself.

Joseph Romm
Joseph Romm
Joseph Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he runs the blog, climate progress.org. He is a former acting assistant secretary of energy.

Obama's top priority should be to stop the country from building any more traditional coal plants. The Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to do that today.

If we don't stop building new dirty coal plants, we can't meet the greenhouse gas targets needed to avoid catastrophic warming — targets Obama himself has embraced, including a 17 per cent cut in total U.S. emissions by 2020, and then a further 80 per cent cut by 2050. If developed countries can't show that sustainable growth is possible without coal, then developing countries will never shift away from it. Ultimately, coal with carbon capture and storage may prove practical and affordable, but that technology is at least a decade or two away.

Fortunately, with energy efficiency, wind power, solar photovoltaics, and concentrated solar thermal, plus other renewables, the country has more than enough cost-effective technologies to not only replace new coal, but to start shutting down existing plants. Obama should use the economic stimulus package and a major 2009 Energy Bill to launch a massive effort to vastly improve energy efficiency, create clean electricity, and develop smart grid technology. The next priority is aggressively jumpstarting the transition to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Electricity is the only alternative fuel that can provide an abundant domestic, low-carbon, alternative fuel with a per-mile fueling cost that is considerably cheaper than gasoline or diesel.

The third priority is a climate bill that sets a price on carbon. Such a price is crucial for stimulating the ingenuity of the marketplace. But such a bill won’t deal with existing coal plants or the transportation sector fast enough to meet urgent near-term emissions targets. Only smart regulations can do that, which is why they are a higher priority.

Frances Beinecke
Frances Beinecke
Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The economic crisis is clearly at the top of President-elect Obama's long list of pressing challenges. Fortunately, he seems to recognize that the path to economic stability leads right through clean energy investments — solutions that create jobs and curb global warming.

In the first 100 days, Obama should announce his commitment to passing a massive, clean energy stimulus plan that will include incentives for: retrofitting homes and offices to become more energy efficient, expanding public-transit infrastructure, making the nation's electric grid smarter and capable of managing renewable power, and retooling manufacturing plants to produce high-mileage cars and other efficient goods.

All of these measures, from installing new insulation to writing software for smart meters, will create millions of jobs right here in America.

Most importantly, we can make these investments in the nation's clean-energy infrastructure without increasing the federal budget deficit. Instead, we will generate clean energy capital by enacting clear limits on global warming pollution and requiring polluters to buy permits for each ton they release.

That's why it is critical for Obama to make a public commitment to support legislation that will cap carbon emissions — as he indicated recently. Scientists say that to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, we must cap and decrease emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Obama should let that science guide his climate efforts.

Obama can also use the executive branch's powers under existing laws to tackle climate change. For instance, he should allow California and other states to enforce their own standards for global warming pollution from cars, and use our energy laws to strengthen fuel economy and appliance efficiency standards.

The entire federal government has a critical role to play in unleashing these solutions, but it is the president who will set the tone. In his first 100 days, President-elect Obama has an opportunity to galvanize the nation by announcing bold measures that will channel America's ingenuity into solving the entwined economic, climate, and environmental crises.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

What should the top environmental priority for our next president be? One that goes hand-in-hand with efforts to rebuild our economy. When President-elect Barack Obama told a bipartisan group of governors in late November that the effort to create millions of jobs and restore American leadership on climate change will "start with a federal cap-and-trade system," he got it exactly right.

Obama's commitment turns two of our nation's greatest challenges — economic turmoil and unchecked global warming — into a singular opportunity. Dealing with them together makes perfect sense: A cap on greenhouse gas pollution will help solve climate change and reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing.

How? First, by creating vast new demand for low-carbon energy solutions. Behind every clean energy technology, from wind turbines and solar cells to carbon capture and advanced lighting, lies a parts-and-labor supply chain that runs through the heartland of U.S. manufacturing. Every wind turbine contains 8,000 parts, including bolts, copper wiring, ball bearings, concrete foundations, and steel towers. Cap-and-trade would instantly create new markets, new customers, and new jobs for the companies that make them.

At the same time, auctioning emissions allowances under cap-and-trade can potentially raise billions in new revenue that can be dedicated to investment in American infrastructure — in turn creating more jobs that cannot be outsourced, more solutions for combating climate change, and a firm foundation for a new energy economy.

Post-election polling conducted for the Environmental Defense Fund shows a majority of voters believe now is the time to address climate change by investing in clean energy and creating new jobs. Congress and the president-elect should work quickly to pass a cap-and-trade bill that builds our way out of the economic challenges we face, and makes America more efficient, more competitive, and more safe and secure. It is precisely the leadership the American people are looking to the next president and the new Congress to provide.

David W. Orr
David W. Orr
David W. Orr, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College.

The incoming Obama administration must grapple with the largest and most portentous policy debate we’ve ever had about the biggest issue ever on the human agenda — planetary destabilization brought about by our overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, climate destabilization will compete for attention and resources with the effort to solve the economic crisis.

The conventional wisdom with which we’re starting the debate on climate policy is seriously flawed in several ways. Politicians, pundits, and even most NGO advocates believe that climate change is a solvable problem, is mostly an economic issue and is far less important than economic growth, and is only one issue on a list of mostly unrelated problems.

The conventional wisdom is wrong on all counts. Since most mistakes occur early in the policy process, embedded in unexamined assumptions, it is crucial at the outset that the president-elect understand the nature of climate destabilization. No known technology can “solve” the climate problem in a time span meaningful for us. But we do have control over the eventual size of climate impacts now underway. Assuming that we are successful, say, by the year 2050, we will not have forestalled many of the changes, but we will have contained the scope, scale, and duration of the destabilization.

The chasm between the science on one side, and the slow, piecemeal politics of Washington on the other, calls for leadership far beyond ordinary expectations. Climate destabilization calls for rethinking governance and the practice of democracy on a scale and time-span commensurate with the changes we’re setting in motion. Policies that govern climate and energy are crucial to policies that affect the economy and national security. Obama must demonstrate leadership that helps the public understand fundamental connections, including those between what we drive and the weather we experience. He must help us calibrate hope with the hard realities ahead and initiate deeper transformations that would otherwise be dismissed as utopian, but that are now the only practical options left to us.

We are rapidly approaching climate thresholds that we must not cross. The president-elect must be prepared to act quickly and boldly, develop unified policies for energy, security, the economy, and social equity, and use the White House as a “bully pulpit” to build a constituency for the long haul.

Van Jones
Van Jones
Van Jones, founding president of the group, Green for All, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to put people to work tackling the economic and environmental challenges of his day. The new administration must help create an economy that is based on building, not borrowing; on creativity, not credit and consumption. We need to establish a Clean Energy Corps to help us meet our modern challenges. This corps should be charged with retrofitting and re-powering America. It would have three components: The first would be fully funded green community service programs — for example, getting volunteers to plant trees and gardens. The second would be green job training programs; trainees would learn how to install solar panels, weatherize buildings, and do green construction. And lastly, green jobs; the federal government should invest heavily in renewable energy and energy retrofits for buildings. Much of this work would pay for itself in energy savings. Such an effort would jumpstart the economy.

William K. Reilly
William K. Reilly
William K. Reilly, administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1989-1993, and founding partner of Aqua International Partners, a private equity fund that invests in water and renewable energy.

In the first year, the Obama administration should quickly put the nation's clean air laws and other appropriate authority to work to cut global warming pollution and help deliver dramatic reductions in oil use. The Clean Air Act is flexible and well suited to address global warming pollution from the transportation and electric generating sectors, which account for more than half of greenhouse gas emissions. Aggressive action by the president can both spur Congress to early action on a more comprehensive climate programme and complement congressional action.

The following measures are important to jumpstart progress on solving our nation’s climate and energy crisis.

  • Direct the EPA to act on the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA, which established that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases endanger both human health and welfare. This opens the door to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases.
  • Direct the EPA to allow California to enforce its more stringent, fleetwide standards for vehicle emissions of greenhouse gases. Then direct EPA to use existing authority to propose national global warming pollution standards for cars and trucks that are at least as tough as those approved by California. These standards should be finalized within one year.
  • Direct the EPA to begin the rulemaking process for medium and heavy-duty vehicle global warming pollution standards under the Clean Air Act, coordinated with the Department of Transportation, and to start the rulemaking process for global warming pollution standards for aviation and shipping.
  • Support alternatives to driving, such as mass transit, walking, biking, telecommuting, and carpooling.
  • Instruct the EPA to identify measures to address stationary-source emissions, such as from coal-fired power plants, and work with Congress on legislative approaches to curb these emissions.
The current economic crisis will be raised as a reason to defer President-elect Obama's promises to address energy and climate challenges. However, carefully crafted actions on climate change, alternative energy, and new incentives for green technologies can put the country on a path to a future that better reconciles our environmental goals with our economic aspirations.

Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich
Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich
Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich, are in the Department of Biology and the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, where he is Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences and she is Senior Research Associate.

The monumental task before us, and the new president, is to solve the human predicament — the combined crises of overpopulation, wasteful consumption, deteriorating life-support systems, growing inequity, increasing hunger, toxification of the planet, declining resources, increasing resource wars, and a worsening epidemiological environment that increases the probability of unprecedented pandemics.

The new administration should embrace a population policy that strives to reduce birthrates in the U.S. and abroad, promotes access to legal abortion, and immediately lifts ideological restrictions imposed on government Web sites dealing with reproductive health. The administration should also promote programs to educate and open job opportunities for women and to provide effective contraception in poor countries.

Overall, the administration’s policies should adhere to a number of overarching principles: embrace zero population growth, emphasize conserving more than consuming, expand global educational opportunities, and initiate a Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior to begin a debate on what population size, consumption patterns, economic arrangements, and technologies will lead to a sustainable future.

We hope the new president is willing to dramatically change how the U.S. and the world work. We hope he will not employ conventional economists who will try to restore the same old growth machine that is destroying the world. We hope Obama will take steps to transform our energy economy so the nearly inevitable eventual war with China over fossil fuels can be avoided. Then there is the issue of curbing rich-world consumption. The U.S., with 4.5 per cent of the global population, cannot continue to consume roughly a quarter of Earth’s resources; similar statements apply to the other rich nations.

Betsy Taylor
Betsy Taylor
Betsy Taylor, founder and board president of 1Sky campaign to urge federal action on global warming.

President Obama must rally the nation to action but first he should announce a national day of prayer and reflection. The president can only prevail with a bottom-up outpouring of public support for transformational change. He must ask us to reclaim our best selves and a new ethos of public service, rather than greed, as the core of the American identity.

President Obama should help us visualize a promising future: a world without fossil fuel and with five million new green jobs, clean energy, and basic security for all. He should issue an “all hands on deck” call to action and focus overwhelmingly on programs and policies that simultaneously cut global warming emissions and foster economic opportunity. I recommend the following three policy initiatives on climate and energy:

Set a national goal for reducing greenhouse gases and engage all sectors in moving beyond rhetoric to action.

  • Commit to mandatory reductions in carbon emissions that meet the demands of science. Reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 25-40 percent by 2020 and work to achieve zero emissions by 2050.
Urge Congress to enact comprehensive climate legislation that puts a price on carbon, compensates Americans for rising energy costs, and funds adaptation programmes.
  • Obama should work with Congress to forge a new climate policy that caps greenhouse gas emissions and requires carbon polluters to pay for 100 percent of their pollution through a cap-and-tax and/or cap-and-auction programme. Redirect the estimated $100-$200 billion in revenue to protect Americans from rising energy prices and ensure a just and equitable transition to a low-carbon future. Return at least 70 per cent of the revenue from corporate polluter payments back to American households to offset the rising cost of heat, transportation, and food.
  • Protect the most vulnerable by using 15 percent of revenue from the auction or tax for a mix of programs, including home energy assistance and weatherization initiatives.
  • Invest 5 per cent to help developing nations with adaptation plans and programs that aid those being displaced by droughts, fires, and water shortages resulting largely from the disproportionate share of global warming emissions generated by the United States.
  • Invest the final 10 per cent in energy efficiency and renewable energy programmes that rapidly cut carbon emissions while generating new green jobs.
Place an immediate moratorium on all new coal-fired power plants that emit global warming gases. If we don’t do this, we lose.

Bill Chameides
Bill Chameides
Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

Let’s face it, when Obama takes office the environment will not be Priority Number 1. Getting America on a firm financial footing will. But addressing environmental needs can help stimulate economic growth. Here’s how the new president can address the underlying drivers of climate change while taking care of our flagging economy.

I believe that sinking federal subsidies into renewable energy (like solar and wind projects) is an ineffective way to spend our limited resources. Far more effective would be using federal dollars to (1) spur the wealthier private sector to invest in renewable energy and efficiency, and (2) build the infrastructure needed for large-scale, private deployment of renewable energy.

Infrastructure projects are critical for getting the economy going and addressing environmental needs. A top priority is redoing the nation’s electric grid. Today's system for moving electrons from power plants to homes and workplaces is outdated. The current grid maxes out, and can crash, when electricity coming from renewable sources makes up about 20 percent of its capacity. We need a "smart grid" that can integrate large amounts of intermittent energy from wind and solar while remaining stable and dependable.

Obama and the Congress must also invest in transportation. While rebuilding our aging roads and bridges, we must greatly expand mass transportation, which is fundamental to addressing energy security, congestion, air pollution, and climate change.

While we're talking transportation, don’t forget the Internet. What does the Net have to do with transportation? Plenty. More bandwidth makes telecommuting and teleconferencing more practical for more people, reducing consumption of imported oil. Finally, America needs a comprehensive climate policy, and the new administration should send Congress a climate bill during its first 100 days. But waiting for Congress would be a huge mistake. The failed Warner-Lieberman Climate Security Act showed that getting climate legislation passed will not be easy. President Obama should jumpstart the country’s climate policy by using the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide as an air pollutant.

There is every reason for optimism. After eight long years, we have a president and Congress committed to an ambitious climate and energy policy. President Obama has the mantel. Godspeed, he’ll need it.

© 2008 Yale Environment 360