By the Stroke of a Presidential Pen: Executive Orders on Climate Change

Amy Sinden

Nov. 10, 2008

President-elect Obama has a lot on his plate. No doubt the financial crisis is foremost on his mind. But as he ticked off his to-do list in his victory speech Tuesday night, I heard our new president mention another global crisis as well: “a planet in peril.” The worst economic crisis since the great depression may be the crisis that’s getting all the attention and money thrown its way lately, but the other global crisis—the inexorable and ominous warming of the planet—has the capacity to wreak a far more profound and irreversible havoc in the long term.


I can go through the usual ominous litany—rising seas, drought, crop failure, tropical diseases creeping northward. But to understand the depth and magnitude of the threats we face from the climate crisis, consider that, if current trends continue, every last spot on earth—and that means every last ecosystem on earth—will be significantly disrupted, pushing a third of all species to extinction by mid-century.


We have only just begun to comprehend the value of the free work we’ve been getting out of natural ecosystems all these years. Purifying water, controlling flooding, recycling waste . . . the list goes on and on. One study figured the value of the services we get from just the wetlands ecosystems on earth at a whopping $16 to $54 trillion per year. For comparison, the financial crisis has so far cost Wall Street something between $1 and $1.5 trillion.


So what’s a new president to do? First, there is no question he must plan to personally attend the next set of climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, and immediately set to work trying to facilitate an international agreement. Second, he must push Congress to pass ambitious climate change legislation, imposing serious cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, funding new research on renewable energy technologies, and rejecting calls to have federal legislation preempt state and local climate change policies.


But before that, there are two simple but important steps President Obama can take to immediately set the new administration on a path toward solving the climate crisis. And he can do it by executive order – all on his own, without getting approval from Congress or any international institutions.


The first step is to issue an executive order requiring every federal agency to measure, report, and reduce its carbon footprint. Requiring agencies to measure their carbon footprints will force them to come to grips with the ways in which their activities contribute to global climate change and help them to identify strategies for reducing those contributions. Estimates are that the federal government is directly responsible for 1.4 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a lot, and it could and should be less. Moreover, the measuring requirement will offer the U.S. government an opportunity to develop a universal standard for measuring carbon footprints. Many entities—including governmental bodies, businesses, and nonprofits—have already begun to measure their carbon footprints, but no universal standard for conducting these measurements has emerged. The lack of a standard has resulted in inconsistencies that make it difficult to measure progress across different organizations and sectors of the economy.


Requiring agencies to report their carbon footprints will also focus public attention on the issue and set an important example for corporations and individuals. Of course, to make the order truly meaningful, it must set clear, measurable and ambitious goals and deadlines, directing agencies to reduce their carbon footprints by 10 percent by 2013, and by 25 percent by 2017.


The second step President Obama can take right away is to sign an executive order requiring each federal agency to incorporate climate change considerations into its decision making. Federal agencies make decisions every day that exacerbate both the causes and consequences of climate change. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently set new fuel efficiency standards for light trucks, and in the process, all but ignored the implications of the decision for global warming. Requiring NHTSA and other agencies to take climate-change implications into account in decision making and to choose courses of action that minimize or avoid climate change impacts and vulnerabilities can go a long way toward reducing the federal government’s carbon footprint as well as its vulnerability to climate change effects.


Both of these proposals are incorporated into CPR’s latest report, Protecting Public Health and the Environment by the Stroke of a Presidential Pen. It focuses on seven separate proposed executive orders that would help jump-start the Obama administration’s agenda – orders the new President could sign in his first 100 days, or if he chose, in his first 100 hours. The proposed orders deal with climate change, reinvigorating safeguards against toxics in the environment that could harm children, ending the Bush Administration’s backdoor effort to undercut citizens’ right to sue for damages from faulty drugs and products, increasing protections for public lands, making environmental justice a key factor in federal decisionmaking, and reinstituting policies of transparency in government. Over the course of the week, various CPR Member Scholars will blog on these proposals. So don’t forget to check this space every morning.


It’s almost a cliché now to point out the enormity and intractability of the problems the new administration faces and the many difficult decisions the President-elect will have to make in the coming months. These executive orders are immediate steps he could take to make a meaningful difference, while sending a powerful message that change is under way.


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