08/16/2013 11:00 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2013

Obama's Climate Plan: What's Missing?

Last month, President Obama rolled out his Climate Action Plan. The plan ticks off more than thirty steps to mitigate and adapt to climate change, none of which requires congressional action to implement. And while some of the plan is aspirational, it does propose to take steps, like EPA regulation of the use of coal by electric utilities, that can make real progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Predictably, the plan has taken a lot of heat -- both for being too modest and too overbearing. But something is lost in framing the debate that way. More important is whether any plan will achieve actual results.

So what does it take to get results in this challenging environment, and even harder, to continue to produce them over the decades that the climate will be changing? Earlier this year a group of scholars gave this problem careful thought at a workshop organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. They agreed on a few initial recommendations, and here's my reading of their advice.

First, keep your promises. Over time, the parties affected by climate change -- especially industry -- need to commit to resolving the climate problem in their long-range planning. Given the resistance that actions such as regulation of existing power plants will engender, gaining that commitment will take time. Similarly, if reluctant stakeholders can shrug off aspirational goals as just another set of talking points, there'll be no commitment to change. For both reasons, getting programs in place that industry knows will stay there is crucial. The president has done this with auto emissions standards, letting manufacturers know what they'll need to do for cars from now until 2025. Now it's time to do so for the other biggest source of carbon emissions, power plants.

Second, evaluate results. Not every element of the climate action plan will work as originally intended. Fortunately, however, effective implementation doesn't require getting everything right the first time. What is required is to rigorously evaluate whether a plan is working and to aggressively fix the parts that aren't. Moreover, it's important to take the initiative; there's nothing worse than leaving evaluation to the doubters.

Third, create winners. Individuals, businesses, and state and local officials are the keys to implementing the climate action plan, not federal agencies. Even if a federal initiative can get these folks moving in the right direction, keeping up the momentum requires earning the ongoing commitment of key stakeholders by producing something they value and so want to keep. There are many ways to do that, depending on the interests of different stakeholders. For example, maintaining the value of investment made in greenhouse gas control could be important for business, while growing affordable energy from renewable resources might attract environmentalists and green businesses. States, too, have an important stake in what new regulations look like since many of them are already engaged in climate regulation and will need to implement much of the federal plan. And make no mistake; creating tangible results is the essential first step in creating stakeholder value.

So what can the president do to heed this advice? A convincing performance over the remainder of his term might include getting the EPA carbon dioxide standards done, making a serious start on building renewable energy production on federal land, crafting fuel economy standards for heavy duty trucks, and developing a credible plan for controlling high potency greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide.

And what happens after that? Of course, the views of the next president will be crucial, and one can hope that candidates for that office will take seriously the need for getting climate policy results. But even failing that, scholars have a lot of work to do to figure out how to build institutions durable yet flexible enough to manage the decadal and shifting issue of climate change. If left unchecked, the human and economic cost of climate change -- already evident - is sure to grow. If you doubt that, check out the $19.5 billion price tag for New York City's climate program.

Robert Fri is a Visiting Scholar, Senior Fellow Emeritus, and former President of Resources for the Future, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the guest editor of the winter 2013 issue of Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, titled "The Alternative Energy Future."