07/02/2013 03:46 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

Obama's Climate Plan Must Do More to Fight Crisis


It was quite a speech. Wiping sweat from his brow under a blistering summer sun, President Obama made a powerful case for taking action on the most urgent environmental issue of our time: climate change.

The president, speaking at Georgetown University last week, confronted tired excuses for inaction against carbon pollution and refuted them decisively. New air pollution regulations, he pointed out, will incentivize innovation and help our economy -- just as they have many times before.

And to climate change deniers, the president simply said this: "We don't have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society."

But strong words are one thing. Strong action is what's needed -- and that's where the president's new strategy for confronting carbon pollution comes up short.

The Obama plan just isn't ambitious enough to match the magnitude of the climate crisis. It won't cut greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to prevent the catastrophic warming and extreme weather predicted by the president's own scientists. And some parts of the proposal will actually worsen the crisis.

The first problem is the president's modest goal: He wants to put America on track to cut greenhouse pollution by about 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. But such a reduction is far less than what we pledged in the Kyoto Protocol and won't be enough to avert disastrous temperature increases, according to climate scientists.

The plan's key plank is a directive to the Environmental Protection Agency to develop carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants. That's an excellent first step, but hardly revolutionary: Such standards are required by law and would already be in place if the Obama administration hadn't dragged its feet for five years.

The EPA has already missed one deadline to set carbon pollution rules for new power plants. And there's little evidence from the president's new proposal that he will move quickly and forcefully enough to curtail the climate-disrupting emissions spewing from the power industry's smokestacks.

Another major problem: Natural gas plays a major role in the president's plan, because the White House buys the false notion that gas is a climate-friendly fuel.

More gas means more hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a dangerous form of gas and oil extraction in which millions of gallons of water mixed with toxic chemicals are blasted into the ground to shatter rock formations. Fracking and drilling release enormous amounts of methane, a dangerously potent greenhouse gas. When methane leakage rates from production are greater than 3 percent, burning natural gas for power is actually worse than burning coal, and methane leakage rates as high as 17 percent have been recorded. Fracking and drilling also spew other dangerous pollutants into our air and water and devastate communities and wild areas with massive truck traffic, noise and intense industrial activity.

Particularly counterproductive is the White House's plan to encourage adoption of heavy-duty natural gas vehicles. Because of methane leakage, a 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that switching our heavy-duty diesel vehicles to compressed natural gas will actually increase net warming for about 300 years.

We don't have time for half-measures or false solutions. Global carbon emissions hit a record high last year, and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have reached 400 parts per million -- a level not seen for millions of years. One recent study of ocean warming reinforces research suggesting that climate change may be accelerating.

We are now on track for as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit of warming by the end of this century unless we ambitiously reduce emissions, according to the draft National Climate Assessment, a federal scientific report released earlier this year. As temperatures rise, America will experience more damage from extreme weather, including droughts and killer storms.

The president needs to aim higher and move faster. The administration, for example, should declare carbon dioxide a "criteria pollutant" under the Clean Air Act and set a national pollution cap for carbon dioxide at no greater than 350 parts per million (ppm). Top climate scientists have concluded that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels above 350 ppm will cause catastrophic global warming.

The Obama administration must also deny a permit for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would, every day, carry up to 35 million gallons of oil strip-mined from Canada's "tar sands" -- some of the most carbon-intensive fuel on the planet.

Most of all, the White House must stop promoting continued reliance on fossil fuels. The administration's "all of the above" strategy just won't achieve the pollution cuts scientists say we need.

It's too late in the game for the president to fight climate change with one hand and beckon it on with the other. We need real action, right now -- before we lose our last chance to head off the worst effects of climate chaos.