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Embracing a Holistic Approach to Climate Change Mitigation

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You wouldn't know it from watching the major cable networks, but climate change remains a key issue in this presidential campaign -- and one that can't simply be boiled down to a question about gas prices or emission reductions. Indeed, though it may not garner as much coverage as the Iraq war the economy, it is one of the few issues on which both candidates share some common ground. And while there is certainly room for improvement in both their positions -- Barack Obama could do away with his support for ethanol subsidies while John McCain should tamp down his enthusiasm for nuclear energy -- they at least have the basics right.

TreeHugger logo imageWhere I fault the candidates -- and, to a greater extent, the media -- is in framing the issue of climate change mitigation only in terms of energy and emissions. Although it's true that these arguably dictate the larger questions of the debate, particularly in the context of international climate talk negotiations, Obama and McCain should be focusing on crafting a broad-based, multi-faceted climate change agenda -- one that seeks to resolve our current impasse as much as it anticipates future crises. Here are two issues worthy of mention that either candidate would do well to embrace:

Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure
OK, I'll readily admit that Obama has been making great strides on this issue. On his campaign website, he highlights the need to improve building efficiency by 25 percent over the next decade, supports investment in a digital smart grid and says that his administration will reward states and localities that take the initiative in implementing progressive new building codes. McCain, on the other hand, makes little to no mention of infrastructure on his website.

In light of the current challenges facing our national infrastructure, however, both candidates should be on the forefront of this issue -- describing it not only as a matter of smart, climate-friendly policy but also one of economic competitiveness and national security. The University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Economic Research recently released a series of reports examining the economic and infrastructural impacts of climate change on 8 U.S. states.

Not surprisingly, the findings weren't encouraging: The authors found that most states have significantly underestimated (or ignored entirely) the direct and indirect effects of climate change, which could cost many several billion dollars down the line. Ecosystems will suffer, as will our most vital infrastructures (water and electricity, to name a few), and no sector of the economy will be spared, they conclude.

Instead of frittering money away on temporary stimulus packages, the president and the Congress should approve sweeping new legislation making infrastructure investment a priority of the federal government and an effective policy to combat joblessness and our falling global competitiveness. Since that won't be happening any time soon, a President Obama or McCain will need to make this one of the first items on his agenda when he assumes the office early next year.

Boost funding for climate research and adaptation scenarios
Despite the admirable progress made by our government scientists and international organizations like the IPCC in advancing our understanding of climate change, there remains a great deal of uncertainty around its exact impacts and the speed with which they will take place. Teasing out these individual impacts -- and using that information to develop adaptation scenarios -- presents one of the biggest challenges for the research community. In particular, predicting the short-term regional effects of climate change, though crucial, has been made difficult by a steady decline in research funding. The next administration should make climate research one of its primary scientific initiatives and provide more funding to government agencies, like NOAA and NASA, and research institutions, through grants awarded by the NSF.

Unlike the IPCC, whose strength lies in providing global assessments, government agencies and research scientists can write highly focused special reports that address regional or local concerns. These should elaborate the costs and benefits of various prevention and adaptation measures and make targeted recommendations. As our knowledge of the climate continues to evolve, these assessments and recommendations will, of course, change -- and that's perfectly OK. The point is not to devise the ultimate fail-proof climate strategy but, instead, to craft a range of adaptation scenarios that will enable us to prepare for the worst while providing some flexibility as to how we implement specific policies.

While by no means the be-all-end-all list -- go check out other articles on TreeHugger or some of the great writing being done by Gristmill and Climate Progress for more -- these two issues, right alongside energy and emissions, should form the core of both candidates' climate agendas.

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