It's been one brutal piece of bad news after another. First, we learned that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the contiguous United States. Then, a federal report revealed that climate change is already affecting America -- and could raise U.S. temperature by as much as 10 degrees by 2100.
That report, the National Climate Assessment, also found that America's efforts to reduce carbon pollution are too little to avoid dangerous climate change.
And now we get the global grimness. NASA and NOAA have just released planet-wide data for 2012. Last year, it turns out, was Earth's 10th hottest on record. As NOAA points out, "Including 2012, all 12 years to date in the 21st century rank among the 14 warmest in the 133-year period of record."
We're in trouble. If we don't act -- quickly -- the consequences could be devastating. But the good news is that President Obama has extremely powerful existing tools to fight climate change right now -- if only he would use them.
Chief among them is the Environmental Protection Agency's duty to issue rules to reduce greenhouse pollution under the Clean Air Act. This farsighted law has reduced harmful air pollution for four decades, saving many thousands of lives. All of the Clean Air Act's successful programs can be put to work immediately to cut greenhouse pollution. The Clean Air Act gets top billing on the list, which shows the great scope and scale of the climate tools already available to the president.
Here are five steps President Obama should take:
1. Use the Clean Air Act to set a national pollution cap for greenhouse gases:
To head off the worst effects of climate change, we need to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to no more than 350 parts per million, or PPM. The Clean Air Act already requires the EPA to set such a national pollution cap, based solely on science, at the level necessary to protect public health and welfare from widespread and damaging pollutants, called the "criteria pollutants."
The EPA has already done so for six pollutants: ozone, particulate matter, sulfur and nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and lead. Reductions in these pollutants have been particularly impressive: Between 1980 and 2010, emissions of these six pollutants went down by 63 percent while the gross domestic product grew by 128 percent. Emissions of carbon dioxide, which was unregulated, went up by 21 percent over this same period.
A national pollution cap for greenhouse gases is urgently needed -- it would serve as the engine that drives pollution reductions under all Clean Air Act programs and as a science-based standard to guide all climate policy.
2. Use the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse pollution economy-wide:
The Clean Air Act has numerous other successful programs that reduce pollution from specific sources. The EPA has issued a proposed standard to reduce pollution from new power plants, which needs to be strengthened and then finalized. The EPA should also issue strong standards for all major greenhouse polluters, from oil refineries to cement plants.
The EPA also must tackle greenhouse pollution from the transportation sector, including aviation, the fastest-growing transportation source. The EPA has a mandatory duty to set greenhouse gas reduction rules for aircraft, just as it has done for passenger cars, but the agency has to date only dragged its heels. These Clean Air Act programs work wonders -- but only if they are actually implemented.
3. End fossil fuel development on public lands:
The Department of Interior leases out millions of acres of publicly owned lands for oil, gas, and coal development, including fracking. The president should direct public lands management towards protecting our air, water, and wildlife -- not furthering our addiction to fossil fuel. No fossil fuel development should be allowed on public lands unless it is demonstrably compatible with plans to slash U.S. emissions and reduce carbon dioxide concentrations to below 350 ppm.
Fracking is a particularly dangerous form of oil and gas extraction in which water, mixed with sand and chemicals, is blasted deep underground at enormous pressure to break up rock formations and extract fossil fuels. Fracking poisons the air we breathe and the water we drink. Twenty-five percent of the hundreds of chemicals known to be used in fracking fluid cause cancer, while many others damage the nervous, endocrine, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems. Fracking also releases large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
The Bureau of Land Management has just proposed the first regulations for fracking on public land. As a first step, the president should direct the agency to simply prohibit this inherently dangerous activity on federal land.
4. Deny approval of the Keystone Pipeline:
The Keystone Pipeline would transport up to 35 million gallons of oil every day from Canada's tar sands -- one of the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive energy sources in the world -- to the Gulf Coast. That's why Dr. James Hansen, one of the world's leading climate scientists, has called the Keystone Pipeline "Game Over" for the climate. We need to leave tar sands oil in the ground, not pump it across the continent in a pipeline sure to leak.
The Keystone Pipeline cannot go forward without approval from the State Department, and thus the president can and should stop the project permanently. Doing so would show commitment to the necessary transition from dangerous fossil fuels to a clean energy future.
5. Join the world in seeking a fair, ambitious, and binding climate treaty:
President Obama has broken his campaign promise to rejoin the world in seeking a successful global climate treaty. In 1992 the first President Bush signed, and the Senate ratified, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in which we agreed to take the actions necessary to avoid dangerous climate change. Yet the U.S. negotiating team still refuses to agree to the cuts necessary to avert climate disruption, undermining the negotiations and diminishing our country in the eyes of the world.
The president can change this by directing his State Department negotiating team to commit our country to fair, ambitious, and binding greenhouse gas reductions. Doing so is a moral imperative -- and the only rational response to the climate crisis.
The threat of catastrophic climate disruption is very real, but there are solutions. President Obama has the tools he needs to slash greenhouse pollution, spur the transition from a fossil fuel to clean energy economy, and lead the way to a brighter future.
And we can all demand that he does.