08/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The $64,000 Question for Obama and McCain on Climate

When it comes to addressing national climate change and energy policy, the focus has been on creating federal law. But the new president will have the power to order the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions on January 21, 2009. The question is: Will he?

In 1997, the Senate voted 95-0 to effectively reject the Kyoto Protocol. In 2003 and 2005, the Senate voted down bills introduced by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) that would have set a nationwide cap on greenhouse emissions. This past spring the Senate couldn't even cut off debate to get a vote on the Warner-Lieberman Climate Security Act. Worse still, the House of Representatives has never even had a climate bill reach the floor.

Those of us who believe the United States must begin to bring its greenhouse gas emissions down have been left to groan the familiar loser's chant: "wait till next year." And with all that's going on, can we have any realistic expectations that the long, arduous path required of a complex climate bill could actually begin on January 3, 2009 when the 111th Congress meets for the first time?

So how about taking another path, the presidential one?

On April 2, 2007 the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Massachusetts v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that, "Under the clear terms of the Clean Air Act, EPA can avoid taking further action (i.e., to regulate greenhouse gas emissions) only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or if it provides some reasonable explanation."

Because of the Bush administration's opposition to mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions -- despite the president's recent shift concerning the seriousness of the global warming threat -- the likelihood that EPA would actually act on the Supreme Court ruling was nil. Indeed, EPA administrator Steve Johnson has squelched any official discussion of EPA rule-making with respect to climate change.

But 2009 promises a whole new world for addressing climate. Both presidential candidates have sponsored or co-sponsored climate change legislation that would impose a declining cap on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (see here and here). Indeed Senator McCain with his long sponsorship of the McCain-Lieberman bill had been leading the way.

So couldn't the new president do something about global warming right out of the gate? The Supreme Court thinks so. And it turns out that EPA staffers had already begun on the QT to draft a white paper on the legal mechanisms by which EPA could develop rules and regulations.

So here is the question I would like to put to Senators McCain and Obama during the presidential debates:

"Suppose you've won the election and are sworn in as president on January 20, 2009. When you wake up on January 21st, what do you do about climate change during your first day on the job: Do you take the initiative on climate change? Or do you waste precious time, pass the buck, and leave it to Congress to figure what to do and how to do it?"

Dr. Bill Chameides is the dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. He blogs regularly at