11/21/2012 10:45 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

Will We Avoid the Climate Cliff?

As our newly elected officials take office, it's safe to say that they have inherited a challenge like never before. Our country is, indeed, at the edge of a cliff, and not just a fiscal one. There's also the climate change cliff, and there is increasing consensus that failure to take urgent action now will mean terrible and irreversible damage to the world in which we live. Like the fiscal cliff, going off the climate cliff will exacerbate existing inequalities and disproportionately impact the disadvantaged.

Recently, discussion around Hurricane Sandy emphasized that the destructive power of climate change is real, and it's already taking a huge toll in terms of economic as well as non-economic costs. The New Jersey shore is 30-40 feet narrower after this one storm alone. The Associated Press cites estimates that Hurricane Sandy has caused up to $50 billion worth of economic damage in the United States; New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has requested $30 billion in federal disaster aid for his state alone. These figures don't -- and can't -- count unquantifiable things like the suffering of those who have lost their homes, possessions, or even loved ones.

Without discounting the Sandy-induced suffering that so many people are feeling in the U.S., most climate-related disasters are much harder on those in a developing nation. Imagine facing the wrath of a Hurricane Sandy without adequate shelter or health and emergency services. This was a reality for many families in Haiti.

Make no mistake: Climate change is fundamentally an issue of justice. Even while climate change is no fault of their own, people living in poverty are more vulnerable to its effects -- including more frequent and intense extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy.

It's a victory that climate change has definitely, and rightfully, been a part of the discussion during the Sandy tragedy. That discussion is useless, however, without proactive and urgent action. Luckily, we have the perfect opportunity to make change in less than one week, and we should make it count.

From Nov. 26 to Dec. 7, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is holding its annual Conference of Parties (COP) meeting, and members of the Obama Administration will meet with top negotiators from around the world to discuss a global agreement on slowing climate change and adapting to its effects.

As a major polluter, the U.S. bears a great deal of historical responsibility for causing the current climate crisis. It is a moral and a legal necessity that we radically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and provide developing countries -- which had little role in causing the climate crisis but are feeling its effects most acutely -- with the resources they need to adapt to climate change and deal with the damage it is already causing.

Responding to climate change disasters and building future resilience is expensive, but doesn't have to come entirely at the taxpayer's expense. Three years ago, developed countries, including the U.S., committed to providing $100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries adapt to the effects of climate change (and reduce their own emissions as their economies grow). But they have done little to actually raise the money.

Climate and economic experts have offered a variety of sources to come up with the cash for climate finance outside of the normal federal budget process. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has failed to recognize any of them. If we want to truly fight climate change, we need to stop deliberating over potential solutions and use one that already exists. These options include, among others:

  • Make the polluters pay -- for instance through a fee on greenhouse gas emissions from the international shipping and aviation industries, which are currently unregulated.
  • Implement a "Robin Hood tax" that would generate funds from a tiny levy on financial transactions. Twelve countries in the EU are currently moving forward on such a tax, and France has already earmarked a portion of the proceeds for climate finance.
  • If a carbon tax is on the table as some media outlets have recently reported, ensure that it is progressive and revenue-raising, and direct some of those revenues towards climate finance.

The Obama Administration should show its support for at least one of these approaches to generating climate finance, as well as commit to a clear path for achieving ambitious emission reduction goals.

President Obama finally broke his deafening campaign silence on climate change in his election victory speech and his Nov. 14 press conference. That was the first step. Next, action at this global climate change meetings will show the world that we are ready to take our responsibilities seriously and lead the world away from a future jeopardized by, in the president's own words, "the destructive power of a warming planet."

Climate change is going to take global, national, and local collaboration if we all want to come out alive. As newly elected officials take office, our leaders must come together to tackle the climate crisis that this world is already facing. Will our elected officials do everything possible to protect those less fortunate from the impacts of climate change -- or will they throw them off the proverbial cliff?