02/13/2013 05:02 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

A Promise to Future Generations on Climate Change

President Obama has made it clear that he's setting his sights on climate change in his second term. In his State of the Union address, he said that "for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change." He went on to acknowledge the weather disasters of 2012 and challenged Congress to act, echoing his inaugural speech: "We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it's too late."

The president vowed that "if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," and promised to create "executive actions... to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy." With this speech, President Obama is poised to begin a second term that makes a difference in the fight against climate change.

Although there were many lost opportunities for responding to climate change during Obama's first term, there also were some quiet success stories involving a series of initiatives to make our nation and natural resources more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Early on, President Obama established the Interagency Climate Adaptation Task Force, which has expanded coordination on wildlife and plant adaptation issues and raised the level of attention on adaptation throughout the federal government. The administration also published a national strategy for managing freshwater resources in response to climate change, and a landmark draft national wildlife adaptation strategy for making wildlife and ecosystems more resilient to climate impacts (the final strategy is still pending). Finally, the president advanced solar, wind and other renewable energies and significantly raised fuel emissions standards for automobiles.

These initiatives, however, remained in the shadows in fear of congressional and electoral attacks and have yet to change agency programs on the ground at the scale needed to combat the problem. But with the climate reality of record-setting storms, wildfires, droughts, floods and heat waves, the president needs to take his gloves off and combat these issues head on and in public.

It's time for the president to take the next steps in an aggressive approach that addresses the emissions that cause climate change and proactively prepares for the impacts we are already facing:

Rebuild and restore, responsibly. After a major weather disaster, the pressure is on to repair damage quickly. But quick shouldn't mean rash. Some response efforts can harm natural systems and make things worse like when earth-moving or building seawalls after flooding damages wetlands. But as Defenders of Wildlife showed in our Harnessing Nature report, many natural areas such as wetlands, dunes and forests are themselves effective buffers against extreme weather. We should be managing them strategically to make them as resilient as possible, whether there's been a recent extreme weather event or not.

Factor it in.
We've heard it over and over again: climate change is affecting us now, and it's not going away any time soon. But even though the administration has released high-level adaptation policies, many federal agencies still aren't accounting for climate change when planning their programs. Future storms, flooding and fires will be more frequent and severe than what we've seen recently. Accepting and planning for climate change now won't just save time, money and property later. It could also save human lives and mean the difference between survival and extinction for many wildlife species.

Bring it all together.
Information about climate change science can be fragmented and hard to access for the public and lawmakers alike. We need to create a "one-stop shop" for climate change information that collects the latest data and analysis, presents it in a way that's accurate and easy to understand for decision makers and the public and conveys it through all types of media: TV, radio, publications and the web.

Connect it. Climate change is forcing wildlife from their traditional ranges. Species are on the move, but we have fragmented the landscape with our roads, houses, industrial areas, farm fields and fences. We need to protect more wildlife habitat and make sure it is connected to allow species to respond to climate impacts and shift to more hospitable habitat. These natural areas will in turn provide us with clean water, flood protection, replenishment of our groundwater, open space and recreation.

President Obama says he is committed to facing these issues. Now he has the opportunity to make good on this promise.