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Guest Analysis

Sea Change in the Politics of Climate

By Kelly Sims Gallagher and John P. Holdren

Last weekend, more than 1,400 public rallies were held all across America -- in churches, community centers, schools, town halls, parks, on tops of mountains and glaciers, and even under water in the Florida Keys -- urging Congress to “Step It Up” and commit to an 80% reduction in U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 This demonstration of public support for real action against the causes of global climatic disruption was part of a cresting wave of change in the politics of the climate issue in this country.

As with most such phenomena, the wave that is pushing the United States toward a serious climate policy has been the product of a convergence of diverse trends and forces. These have included the growing sense of people around the country that they are experiencing climate change in their own lives and watching it on their televisions; the torrent of scientific reports that global climate change is happening faster and with larger impacts even than most experts had expected as of a few years ago; the swelling choruses of business leaders calling for federal regulation of climate-altering emissions and communities of faith demanding protection of the climate; and, of course, Al Gore’s scientifically solid and immensely successful film.

All this plus the spate of climate bills and hearings in the Congress, the Supreme Court finding that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the jurisdiction of the EPA in the Clean Air Act, the upwelling of interest in the national-security implications of climate change, and the rhetoric of presidential candidates of both parties suggests that a national climate policy is finally in the offing in this country. If that is true, it won’t be a moment too soon.

The global-average surface temperature of the planet is already about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit above its pre-industrial value, and because of time lags in the climate system it would coast up another 0.8 degrees F even if the concentrations of the climate-altering substances in the atmosphere could miraculously be frozen at their current levels. Another decade or so of “business as usual” emissions would likely commit the planet to a temperature level that assessments by the most respectable scientific groups have concluded will bring immense suffering from such climate-related phenomena as floods, droughts, wildfires, severe tropical storms, rising sea level, and changing distribution of pests and pathogens.

The United States remains the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the most conspicuous laggard in doing anything about it. The administration’s claim that taking serious action would harm the U.S. economy rings hollow in a world where nearly everyone else is poorer than we, at even greater risk from climate change than we, and less equipped to develop and deploy remedies than we. The cresting wave of public support for serious action indicates that the U.S. public is no longer buying it.

There is no shortage of ideas about what this country should do. The most recent blueprint for action was released today by the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan group of energy experts from industry, government, labor, academia, and environmental and consumer groups. Its new report, “Energy Policy Recommendations to the President and the 110th Congress”, augments an earlier set of Commission proposals with a more stringent cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions, stronger vehicle fuel-economy standards, accelerated development and deployment of advanced coal technologies that can capture carbon dioxide, and adoption of a national renewable-energy portfolio standard, among other measures.

The Commission’s analysis, carried out using the Department of Energy’s own energy-economic model, indicates that implementation of its proposals would lead to an absolute reduction in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions in the first year of the program and would produce a 15 % reduction below 2006 emissions by 2030. The cost to the U.S. economy would be very modest, and many of the measures used would bring subsidiary benefits in the form of reduction of environmental damages besides those from climate change.

The Congress should embed this approach or a similar one in legislation and pass it, and the President should sign it. This would transform the United States from the world’s most conspicuous laggard on climate policy into the global leader that we ought to be and need to be. It would be the single most important thing that anyone could do to bring the greenhouse-gas-emitting giants among the developing countries, China and India, into the global framework of cooperation and commitments that will ultimately be needed to surmount the climate-change challenge. The American public and the world are clamoring for this leadership. Let’s get on with it.

Dr. Gallagher directs the Energy Technology Innovation Project and Prof. Holdren is a faculty member at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Holdren is also Director of the Woods Hole Research Center and a Co-Chair of the National Commission on Energy Policy.

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Comments (6)

Peter Fowler, Oakland, CA:

The only way that the 80% emissions reduction could be approached is through a vast increase in nuclear energy production. I notice that in the Post article, both Drs. Gallagher and Holdren remain reticent on this energy source. Also, V.P. Gore and most of our sitting politicians are similarly silent or even hostile toward it. It seems to be the n-word for the 21st Century. Unfortunate this. While other energy sources are certainly worth exploring, developing, and/or cleaning up, they lack the promise of nuclear energy. If one ignores or is hostile toward it, when it comes to the greenhouse gas emissions problem, he is just blowing smoke.

Peter Fowler, Oakland, CA:

The 80% number championed by the demonstrators
makes clear that these people, though possibly well-intentioned, are scientifically challenged.
On the article on the NCEP report, I notice that both Dr. Gallagher and Professor Holdren are reticent to mention the n-word. In the report summary on the Woods Hole site, item 6. does mention nuclear energy, albeit, not very forcefully. I believe that neclear energy is the best, most reliable, and by far the most effective method by which we can signicantly reduce CO2 emissions. We should greatly expand it's use. To do otherwise is just blowing smoke.


P-L-E-A-S-E!... don't take my computer and my car away from me (I hate public transportation and cannot stand sending letters through the mail anymore!). Let me die e-mailing happily in my SUV! P-L-E-A-S-E!...

Jai Nair:

It might feel nice to call for an 80% reduction in carbon emissions. Have the authors any idea of how that could every be possible? Are they willing to give up their computers, their cars, taking flights on airplanes, the electricity in their homes, and all the other cuts that would be necessary to actually achieve an 80% reduction in emissions? Or do they just want the rest of us to do it?


After reading the recommendations to be found in “Energy Policy Recommendations to the President and the 110th Congress”, my impression is of a total lack of any sense of urgency. The house is burning and one is considering having kids who may one day, one would hope, become most competent firemen (or women)...


I would take issue with the US being the most conspicuous laggard on climate policy. We have had the most stringent vehicle emission standards for a long time. Many may point to Europe's adoption of Kyoto, but when it came down to the time to issue pollution credits Germany and France especially gave out so many that there will be no reduction in greenhouse emissions.

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