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Tonight, President Obama will address the nation at the State of the Union, laying out his priorities for his second term. Climate change is expected to be high on the list, especially following the Inauguration when the president declared that a failure to respond would "betray our children and future generations."

The president has set a goal for the U.S. to reduce emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020; however, the country lacks a clear national plan to get there- and to go even further.

This puts the U.S. out of step with most major countries. For instance, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Korea are moving ahead with ambitious emissions targets backed by strong national policies. Even China - which faces real challenges due to its heavy dependence on coal - has targets to rein in carbon emissions and increase its share of renewable energy under its 12th Five Year Plan.

What, then, can the United States achieve, especially with a Congress that is reluctant to act?

The World Resources Institute just released a comprehensive analysis that finds that the Administration can achieve its 17 percent goal by 2020. But, it will take strong leadership and ambitious action.

I spent the recent U.N. climate negotiations in Doha trying to reconcile two injustices. The first is captured by Nicholas Stern’s “brutal arithmetic.” This is the simple, unavoidable fact that bold greenhouse gas emissions reductions will be needed from all countries to hold global temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, thus preventing climate change’s most dangerous impacts. Developing nations, many of which are battling crippling poverty and inequality at home, are being told that the traditional, high-carbon pathway to prosperity is off-limits, and that they, too, will need to embrace aggressive mitigation actions. This is a glaring injustice – the product of two decades of missed opportunities in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), inadequate domestic action in industrialized countries, and substantial geopolitical changes in major emerging economies.

But the second injustice is even greater – one that is manifest and which must be avoided. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has illustrated, breaching the 2°C threshold would seriously degrade vital ecosystems and the communities who depend on them. This, itself, is an issue of justice, as climate change undermines the realization of human rights, including the right to food, health, an adequate standard of living, and even the right to life. Those same developing countries who are home to the poorest and most vulnerable members of our global community—and who are now compelled to act on reducing emissions—will be hit first and hardest by climate change’s impacts.

Franz Litz, Executive Director of Pace Law School's Energy and Climate Center, also contributed to this post.

WRI just released a new report that answers the important question: Is the United States on track to meet its climate change commitments?

The report, Can the U.S. Get there from Here? Using Existing Federal Laws and State Action to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions, looks at whether the U.S. Administration--without congressional action--can meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. (This is a goal the United States committed to in 2009.)

According to our research, the United States is not yet on track to meet the 17 percent target. However, the country can get there using existing federal laws, provided that the Administration takes ambitious action. We also found that states can play a significant role in reducing GHG emissions and can help supplement federal action.

This report is a legal and technical analysis that explores three levels of ambition for the Administration: “lackluster,” “middle of the road,” and “go-getter.” These scenarios are based on an extensive review of the technical literature on what is possible. The interactive graphic below highlights what can be accomplished through federal action under these scenarios.

Copy the embed code to use this infographic on your own site.

Can the U.S. Get There from Here?

Using Existing Federal Laws and State Action to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

This report examines opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States through actions taken at the federal and state levels without the need for new legislation from the U.S. Congress. It can serve as a road map for action by providing both a legal and technical analysis of...

As we’ve seen recently with Hurricane Sandy, epic drought, and wildfires, climate change visibly impacts lives and livelihoods throughout the United States. Global warming’s effects extend beyond people, wildlife, and ecosystems, though: They’re threatening America’s energy infrastructure.

Today, I testified on this very subject before the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at a hearing entitled “American Energy Security and Innovation: An Assessment of North America’s Energy Resources.” I highlighted the energy risks and opportunities climate change presents, the role that clean energy should play, and actions Congress can take to mitigate global warming’s threats. Excerpts from the testimony are included below, or you can download my full testimony.

Climate Change Threatens Energy Infrastructure

Climate instability directly affects the future security of the U.S. energy sector. For example:

  • Each successive decade in the last 50 years has been the warmest on record globally, and according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, average temperatures will continue to rise. Energy demand is directly impacted by these temperature increases. A recent study in Massachusetts estimates that rising temperatures could increase demand for electricity in the state by 40 percent by 2030.

The world is on track to become a very different place in the next two decades. Per capita income levels are rising, the global middle class is expanding, and the population is set to hit 8.3 billion people by 2030. At the same time, urbanization is happening at an accelerated pace—the volume of urban construction over the next 40 years could equal that which has occurred throughout history to date.

While these projections would bring benefits like reduced poverty and individual empowerment, they have serious implications for the world’s natural resources. Global growth will likely increase the demand for food, water, and energy by 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively by 2030. Add continued climate change to the equation, and the struggle for resources only becomes more intense.

These are just a few of the estimates included in the new Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report from the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) that was released last month. The assessment, which the NIC puts out every four years, reflects in-depth research on trends and geopolitical changes that may unfold in the next 15-20 years—everything from urbanization to conflict to resource scarcity.

Assessments like the NIC’s are invaluable in providing decision makers with forward-looking insights and analysis. But while the report offers a glimpse into the future, what’s more important is how we respond today to the questions these “megatrends” raise.

This piece originally appeared on

As leaders gather for the World Economic Forum in Davos today, signs of economic hope are upon us. The global economy is on the mend. Worldwide, the middle class is expanding by an estimated 100 million per year. And the quality of life for millions in Asia and Africa is growing at an unprecedented pace.

Threats abound, of course. One neglected risk--climate change--appears to at last be rising to the top of agendas in business and political circles. When the World Economic Forum recently asked 1,000 leaders from industry, government, academia, and civil society to rank risks over the coming decade for the Global Risks 2013 report, climate change was in the top three. And in his second inaugural address, President Obama identified climate change as a major priority for his Administration.

For good reason: last year was the hottest year on record for the continental United States, and records for extreme weather events were broken around the world. We are seeing more droughts, wildfires, and rising seas. The current U.S. drought will wipe out approximately 1 percent of the U.S. GDP and is on course to be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Damage from Hurricane Sandy will cost another 0.5 percent of GDP. And a recent study found that the cost of climate change is about $1.2 trillion per year globally, or 1.6 percent of global GDP.

Shifting to low-carbon energy sources is critical to mitigating climate change's impacts. Today's global energy mix is changing rapidly, but is it heading in the right direction?


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