November 9th, 2012
10:21 AM ET

How to press for climate change progress

By Michael Levi, CFR

Michael Levi is director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of  Energy, Security and Climate originally appeared here. The views expressed are his own.

The past week has been huge for people who want to see the United States go big on climate change. First Hurricane Sandy vaulted climate change back into the public debate. Now the reelection of Barack Obama means that there will be someone in the White House who cares strongly about the issue. The combination creates an opportunity to press for climate action.

That makes it all the more critical for people who care about climate change to get things right. If they remember one thing, it should be this: they will need to build coalitions if they want to go big.

The contours of the sort of policy that might have a shot at becoming the foundation for a coalition aren’t too tough to figure out. They probably look a lot like what President Obama advocates when he talks about pursuing an “all of the above strategy.” That would blend serious action to curb emissions from fossil fuel consumption with steps to help facilitate safe expansion of U.S. oil and gas production. (That, incidentally, looks a lot like what John McCain advocated in 2008, suggesting that it has the potential for bipartisan appeal.) Indeed now would be a great time to start telling people who are newly concerned with climate change that there are serious approaches to the problem that they can embrace that don’t require radical revisions to how they think about the world.

More from CFR: What Sandy says about government

Yet many of the loudest voices on climate change, particularly in the aftermath of Sandy, appear to have other ideas on their minds. To them the lesson of recent weeks seems to be that now is the time to redouble those strategies that appeal most to those who are already charged up about climate action. That means renewed efforts to block pipeline, shale, and other oil and gas developments – despite the fact that a substantial majority of Americans are opposed.

The instinct is understandable, but it is ultimately likely to be counterproductive, for two big reasons. The first is a matter of substance: blocking U.S. oil and gas development would have barely any impact on either U.S. or world emissions, and might make things worse. Curbing U.S. oil would nudge emissions lower, but since U.S. production is likely to primarily displace production from others, the impact will probably be very small. More U.S. gas production, meanwhile, is currently reducing emissions by displacing coal, which is good climate news.

All of this means that you need to do considerably more than block oil and gas development if you want to really bend the U.S. emissions curve. What you need is to go directly after emissions from U.S. fossil fuel consumption in a big way, whether that’s through an explicit price on carbon, a clean energy standard, or something else. And since that eventually requires action from Congress, you need to build coalitions. I’m not suggesting that advocates for climate action need to satisfy every member of the House and Senate. But really big steps will eventually require collaboration that extends far across party lines – and putting together coalitions in this vein will inevitably require some support for U.S. oil and gas.

Now some advocates will have a ready response: taking a hard line on oil and gas now gives them something that they can trade when it comes time to deal later on. That’s not a crazy way for some people to take when they think about strategy. But it’s disastrous if it becomes the dominant (or most publicly prominent) approach. The country needs people who will actively articulate a way forward that can be widely embraced – one that, incidentally, probably looks a lot like the “all of the above” strategy that the president has advocated (though not always been able to fully pursue) and that so many have nonetheless mocked.

Moreover, insofar as advocates are merely being tactically shrewd in taking a hard line on oil and gas, they will need to be prepared to compromise in the end in order to get a serious carbon price or clean energy standard through. Telling your grassroots base that U.S. oil and gas development spells certain doom for the planet is not a great way to set that endgame up.

Those who want serious action on climate change should keep one more thing in mind. Four years ago, when the financial crisis hit, many smart analysts said that the opportunity to go big on climate change would return when the economy got back somewhere close to normal. Their mistake wasn’t in that analysis – it was in thinking that the return to normal was only a couple of years away. The economy is now slowly limping back to health, and while it’s far from being repaired, a considerably stronger economy is a real prospect when you look four years ahead. People who want serious action on climate should probably still be looking at the next year or two as an new opportunity to rebuild support for climate action and to begin to craft new coalitions, much as they did in the few years before President Obama was first elected. Doing that requires presenting a vision that people can embrace without completely overhauling their views of the world. Building that foundation will maximize the odds that it will be possible to make big and necessary things happen when the time is really right.

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Topics: Climate • Environment

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. mememine69

    How can they say we "could" be at the point of no return (Google it) and still say climate crisis only "could" be a crisis? It's been 26 years of research and not once have they said it "WILL" happen. Not one IPCC warning is without "maybes" as in help my planet is on fire maybe, could be, might be etc............. When will science be clear and say it "WILL" happen? What's worse, a comet hit?
    REAL progressives are glad, not disappointed a crisis wasn't real after all. Maybe the remaining doomers just wanted this to happen so they could drag the rest of us down with them in their miserable lives?
    Climate crisis is real all right, really not a crisis and real planet lovers are demanding clarity from the same world of science that gave us pesticides.

    November 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Reply
    • itfitzme

      You might die of cancer. If you smoke, you are more likely to die of cancer. If you drink alchohol, you might become an alcoholic. If your parent's were both alchoholics, you have an increased risk of becoming an alchoholic. Chemo-therapy and radiation treatment might cause your pancreatic cancer to go into remission. There is a 75% chance of rain tommorrow. If I take a fifty pound lead weight, launch it with 100 lbs of force at an angle of 45 degrees, I can calculate the landing point to with an accuracy of about +/- 6 inches using the equations of motion and g=9.8m/s^2. The +/- 6 inches is due to unknown frictional forces thaqt are accounted for by friction in the launch mechanism and air friction.

      If you know science, you know that it is always to a degree of certainty but never with absolute certainty. What your asking for isn't realistic.

      November 9, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
      • mememine69

        Just love these amateur arm chair climatologists or as history will call climate blamers; CO2 End of the World Freaks!
        *Canada's voters had already killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially you fear mongers and the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).
        Meanwhile, the entire world of SCIENCE, lazy copy and paste news editors and obedient journalists, had condemned our kids to the greenhouse gas ovens of an exaggerated "crisis" and had allowed bank-funded and corporate-run "CARBON TRADING STOCK MARKETS" to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 26 years of insane attempts at climate CONTROL.
        *In all of the debates Obama hadn't planned to mention climate change once.
        *Obama has not mentioned the crisis in the last two State of the Unions addresses.
        *Occupywallstreet does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded carbon trading stock markets run by corporations.
        *Julian Assange is of course a climate change denier.
        Deny this: Despite being; "at the brink of no return potentially…" there does not exist one single IPCC warning of crisis that isn't peppered with maybes and could bes and likelys….
        HELP MY HOUSE COULD BE ON FIRE MAYBE? Exaggeration wasn't a crime.

        November 10, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  2. Owen Gaffney

    This is a reasonable analysis, but Obama has just a few short months to put the wheels in motion for ambitious policies before events on the ground take over and he, and the world, can forget about it.

    November 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply
    • mememine69

      We don't need to act like neocons by holding the spear of CO2 fear to our kids backs and condemn them to the greenhouse gas ovens of an exaggerated CO2 crisis.
      REAL planet lover are happy a crisis wasn't real.

      November 9, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Reply
    • mememine69

      If there were real legal and civilized consequences for condemning billions to the greenhouse gas ovens, none of you remaining fear mongers would still be threatening our kids like this to a CO2 demise.
      Be happy if you love the planet because the science WAS exaggerated.
      Meanwhile, the entire world of SCIENCE, lazy copy and paste news editors and obedient journalists, had condemned our kids to the greenhouse gas ovens of an exaggerated "crisis" and had allowed bank-funded and corporate-run “CARBON TRADING STOCK MARKETS” to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 26 years of insane attempts at climate CONTROL.

      November 10, 2012 at 8:58 am | Reply
  3. deniz boro

    Changing the world's way of life can not be done by one country or by one region alone. Unfortunatelly USA (as the leading country of the world) must do its part and it will take money and sacrifice by eeryone. Money is a problem for most people now. And well sacrifice will not be done by anyone who is not suffering.
    The bad news is that the crises was real and it is not over yet. Look all around the world for all the nature's events of the last 3 years. It showed a continuous increase. Earthquakes, volcanos, hurricanes, extream rain, snow or lightning. And also wanderful AURORAS. Unnatural drought in some regions and floods in other parts.
    The good news is that the USA management showed a remarkable response and backbone in the face of the crises. It should not be easy to evacuate so many people just before an election. If they can do this emergency action, I hae hope that they will do something to stop its happening again.

    November 9, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  4. Amy Luers

    I agree. If we want to win big it will take time to build a foundation. So far we have failed to focus on building this foundation, because we have been blinded by the urgency of the climate crisis and focusing on the battle of the moment rather than a strategy to win the larger war. You can read more of my thoughts on this in my recent post at the Stanford Social Innovation Review – "Blinded by Urgency". link here:http://www.ssireview.org/blog/entry/blinded_by_urgency

    November 10, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
  5. J C

    thousands of acres of young trees are thined every year in a temprid rainforest just so the usfs can justify that they have a job , yet the usfs does not have the money to fight forest fires , these young growing trees take out more carbon than you can imagine. so far over 84 million tax dollars have ben used in the rainforest to thin trees and it continues to go on every year

    November 10, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    Make climate change and environmental care as part of school curriculum, like maths or history. If kids learn from early age how to protect their environment, there will be less emissions that might lead to climate change.

    November 12, 2012 at 4:55 am | Reply
  7. ronvan

    Remember 2000, when ALL computers were going to fail? How many of us, not me, are waiting for 12-21-2012? Just how many times, have we heard, that the "end of the world" is going to happen? I am NOT trying to deminish the fact that our weather SEEMS to be changing, and there are some strong indicators that it is, BUT the simple fact is that WE will not do anything until it hits us in the face, or more than likely, to late to prevent it! We continue to scream that it is going to effect our children & grandchildren. NOT TRUE! IF WE were truly concerned we would be doing something!
    California!? Massive earthwakes coming! WHEN, not sure! Projected, that in the FUTURE, the entire state will break off and slowly move out to sea! East coast: Oceans rising, YET, stubbornly, continue to rebuild on same spots that ARE subject to disasters! YES, we do have the technology, right now, to help reduce carbon emissions, but not going to happen when to many, you know, the rich ones, are making tons of money! Personally I will wait until GOD lets ALL of us know when our planet comes to an end!

    November 12, 2012 at 8:15 am | Reply
  8. deniz boro

    Ronvan I do not seriously believe that this is only the result of human doing. It most probably is a kind of circle of the solar system that the written human history did not know of. A kind of long-term weather history of the Earth. No one paid serious attention on getting a global attention and action plan to take measures for this scenerio. It was too unpleasant. But now farmers planting wheats as they did for almost 2 decades got their yields burned by the sun. It has been increaseing for the last 2-3 years. The hurricanes, floods and other weather things are strange as well. But I do remember that it has been predicted years ago. I looked into what could happen in Turkey on the map given by those experts: Heavy rains in the North; desertification on Mediteranian coast. But in general an exageration of the natural events all over.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  9. deniz boro

    I did not take these seriously but did watch for the passing two years. I watched the yields of grains and fruits etc. I guess it is true that this weather change is actually effecting the food source of people. I do hope the government did take it at least 1% seriously and made several action plans in relocating the plantation of food plants.

    November 14, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Reply
  10. Claudio Hardaway

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    April 29, 2013 at 4:59 am | Reply

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