07/16/2013 03:27 pm ET | Updated Sep 15, 2013

The President's Climate Plan: A Deeper Dive

In an earlier blog I described President Obama's Climate Action Plan as a good beginning, something to build on in the years ahead. Now I would like to suggest a few ways the President's Plan could be improved.

First, a needed acknowledgement (one the president himself also makes). The president's plan is by political necessity a regulatory approach, one based on actions of the Executive Branch that do not require the approval of Congress. (That doesn't mean there won't be fights in Congress attempting to thwart the president's plan; you can count on that.)

The Plan rests on a narrow base of public and congressional support; it is top-heavy, so to speak, like a vase overflowing with beautiful flowers easily toppled by a skittery cat. The implementation of its pollution-reduction centerpiece, EPA regulation of new and existing power plants, is far from assured, as it will have to weather challenges in Congress and the courts. The outcome of the latter is especially unknown, as it will rely on an untested part of the Clean Air Act (the so-called "111(d)" provision, named after that subsection of the law). Even if it survives these challenges, there is no guarantee that the next Administration will not seek to slow-walk or even sabotage its implementation.

In my earlier blog I spoke of the need to broaden the base of public support for strong action. That will help create more congressional support and support from a wider range of political actors; however, to set in place this broader political base we will need a bi-partisan policy that can be approved by Congress.

Thus, a better approach than regulations, both substantively and politically, would be a bi-partisan one passed by Congress that puts a price on carbon via a market-based mechanism such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program, along with a robust plan to adapt to the consequences.

The president agrees. As he said at Georgetown when he unveiled his Climate Action Plan:
"I'm willing to work with anyone to make that happen. But this is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock. It demands our attention now."

Exactly right. We can no longer allow opponents of action to prevent our country from doing the right thing on climate change. Indeed, it is well past time for serious action at the federal level.

So while a bi-partisan, revenue-neutral carbon tax would be superior to the EPA's regulation of carbon dioxide, for example, moving forward with the latter is preferable to no action at all on the pollution-reduction front.

Furthermore, proceeding with EPA regulation of both new and existing power plants just may be what brings people to the table to create a market-based approach. My one suggestion to the president in this regard would be this: be willing to hold in abeyance the EPA's ability to regulate carbon from power plants in exchange for a bi-partisan revenue-neutral carbon tax that gets the job done. (This so-called "preemption" of EPA's regulatory authority is nothing new, as it was part of the Waxman-Markey climate bill that passed the House in 2009.)

And now a deeper dive into the President's Climate Action Plan.

First, I greatly appreciate the comprehensive nature of the Plan, organized to achieve these three major goals:

  1. "Cut Carbon Pollution in America"
  2. "Prepare the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change"
  3. "Lead International Efforts to Combat Global Climate Change and Prepare for its Impacts."

We cannot make our contribution as a country to overcoming climate change unless we achieve these three goals. The first one, cutting pollution, gets all the attention, but adapting to the impacts and leading internationally are vital as well.

Second, in a spirit of cooperative support, I suggest some ways the President's plan could be made even better; I'll focus on two topics that have received little to no attention by others.

1. Helping the Poor in Poor Countries

This involves the third goal of the President's Plan: providing leadership internationally.

Before getting into some specifics, it is important for us to understand why it is in our national interest to help the poor in poor countries overcome climate change, a case I'll quickly make with three points.

First, a stable world is in our national interest. Diminishing the ways climate impacts function as a "threat multiplier" helps to keep our military personnel out of harm's way and forestalls situations that can become breeding grounds for terrorists. A stable world also enhances our economic security by facilitating the free flow of commerce.

Second, remaining true to our character and our values of fairness, compassion, generosity, and freedom keeps us strong as a country. When our nation's character remains strong, the country is strong.

Finally, we all know that it is much better to avoid a big mess than have to clean one up. Much better to do things right the first time. Helping the poor prepare for the hard times to come makes good sense and saves money to boot. One study found that between 40-68 percent of projected damages could be avoided with proper adaptation whose benefits outweigh their costs.

In general, one of the most important ways we can help the poor build resilience against climate impacts is by helping them create sustainable economic progress empowered by energy prosperity where more share in the benefits afforded by electricity and efficient and cleaner ways of cooking.

In this respect the President's Plan has an important section on "Expanding Clean Energy Use" in the majority world, including the fact that the Obama Administration has reached more than 20 bi-lateral agreements on climate-friendly energy prosperity, or "low emission development strategies" (LEDS). This is important progress and to be commended.

But more needs to be done, especially to drive such efforts down to where they are most needed: Least Developed Countries. I would suggest to the president that partnering with religious and secular relief and development organizations already on the ground, (e.g. Food for the Hungry, World Relief) might be a promising way to help spread energy prosperity in the poorest countries. In many respects such countries are "the last mile." As such, let us remember the words of the Apostle Paul: "Let us not become weary in doing good ..." (Gal. 6:9a).

As for cleaner and more climate-friendly ways of cooking, an important program initiated by then-Secretary Clinton called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is to be commended for its public-private, market-based approach, its progress to date, and its goals for the future. The President's Plan doesn't explicitly mention this program, but it is an important part of the administration's efforts that I hope will continue to grow.

We must also assist the poorest countries in creating resilience that will help them withstand specific climate impacts such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, particular health threats like malaria -- what I call "targeted adaptation."

Both Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that even the U.S. is not ready for the types of natural disasters that will be intensified by climate change in the future (which underscores the importance of the president's second goal). Now just imagine the poorest countries being impacted by natural disasters of even greater intensity.

The good news is that significant progress is possible from targeted adaptation, utilizing in part the thinking behind was is termed "disaster risk management" -- a fancy way of saying preparing for hard times to come, like the Patriarch Joseph did in the Bible.

An example comes from Mozambique, the sixth poorest country in the world and one that will be hit hard by climate change. Both coastal and inland flooding are constant threats. But after the country implemented a disaster risk reduction program, there was an 89 percent drop in mortality. Even though the citizens are poor, concerted efforts by the government, relief and development organizations, and their local communities made them less vulnerable.

So how does the President's Plan and the administration's achievements to date stack up in the funding of targeted adaptation (part of what is referred to as "climate finance")?

Something that gave me real confidence in assessing the President's Plan to be an important step forward was the fact that the emissions reduction target was derived from the pledge made at Copenhagen (or 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020).

In like manner, when it comes to assessing the President's Plan in the area of helping the poor countries overcome climate change, the pledge made by the U.S. at Copenhagen -- to lead the developed countries to provide $100 billion per year of public and private money to assist with both mitigation and adaptation -- is a fair measure. (At the same time, we must recognize that this amount is quite insufficient; one recent estimate suggests that by 2020 $300 billion annually will be required simply on the mitigation front, growing to $500 billion by 2030.)

The President's Plan has a subsection entitled "Mobilizing Climate Finance" where it discusses future efforts to achieve such funding in a rather vague way. While I appreciate what has been achieved thus far, the President must publicly renew his Administration's climate finance commitment made at Copenhagen, which serves as an appropriate measure of success for the President's Plan and will help lay the foundation to achieve higher levels of funding in keeping with justice.

2. Avoid the Natural Gas "Climate Bubble"

Bubbles in the economy -- e.g. housing; tech -- aren't good; because eventually they burst and you can be left in worse shape than before they began. I believe we have a similar situation when it comes to "irrational exuberance" over the benefits of natural gas for addressing climate change.

Someone who appears to be pretty exuberant (here and here) over natural gas is the new head of the Department of Energy, Dr. Ernie Moniz. I once believed, as he still does, that natural gas can be a "bridge" to a clean energy future. The President's Plan also touts natural gas as such a bridge (p. 19). But as I have written about elsewhere (here and here) this could be a bridge to a mirage, another bridge to nowhere, if you will.

Overcoming global warming requires exponential change in emissions reductions driven by major investments in renewables and efficiency, whereas natural gas offers a fractional solution. Right now cheap gas is hindering the creation of clean energy capacity via renewables by dominating new generation: between 2000-2010 natural gas accounted for 81% of new electricity capacity.

Displacing exponential solutions with a fractional one. That's the big problem with gas as a climate solution. As Stanford's Ken Caldeira has argued, relying on gas instead of investing in renewables and efficiency simply delays by a few decades the planet-altering consequences we must avoid, leaving us in the rubble of a burst bubble.

I strongly urge the president and his team to rethink their reliance on natural gas, potentially the "fool's gold" of climate action. Such reliance runs counter to so much that is good in the Plan, so much that lays the foundation for bolder action in the future. Natural gas could do the opposite. Ten years from now the country could be embroiled in a major fight over the natural gas power plants we build today.

Secretary Moniz believes that natural gas buys us more time for renewables to be developed. I believe what it buys us is the possibility of an unnecessary and costly fight in the future when this "climate bubble" bursts.

Let me conclude by reiterating that the President's Plan is a major step forward; let's work with him to make it even better.

The Rev. Jim Ball is author of Global Warming and the Risen LORD.