Ex-Colorado Sen. Hart leads charge to get Obama to act without Congress on climate change

By David O. Williams
Real AspenAugust 6, 2010

Former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, now a Wirth Chair professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, is part of a group of climate change policy experts urging President Barack Obama to act aggressively on the issue in the wake of the U.S. Senate giving up on passing a comprehensive climate change bill this session.

Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart.

Hart, who also chairs the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP) National Advisory Committee, said on a conference call with reporters Thursday that the group has delivered a plan to key Obama administration officials in hopes of the president exercising his executive order powers ahead of a United Nations global climate summit in Cancun, Mexico, Nov. 29.

“Even though Congress has decided not to take action on this matter in this calendar year, the president is going to have to represent the United States of America before the court of public opinion,” Hart said. “We believe these actions in the form of executive orders and proclamations can demonstrate not only to Americans but to the world what leadership is.”

PCAP outlined Obama's aggressive course of action – a potentially risky short-term course ahead of critical mid-term elections for Democrats – in a five-point plan called “Plan B: Near-Term Presidential Actions For Energy & Environmental Leadership.”

While the U.S. House last summer narrowly passed a climate bill and just last week passed an energy reform and oil-spill cleanup package, the U.S. Senate has been gridlocked on both issues.

PCAP Executive Director William Becker said the first and perhaps most important part of the plan is getting the Obama administration to further empower states to continue to carry the day on climate issues. More than 30 states currently have renewable energy standards like the one Colorado adopted this past legislative session, calling for 30 percent of the state's electricity to come from renewable sources by the year 2020.

“Rather than curtailing or preempting state authority as some in Congress have proposed, we really need to support state leadership by, among other things, creating new incentives for states to lead under the programs that the administration controls,” Becker said.

Tom Peterson, president of the Center for Climate Strategies, said a recent analysis by his group concluded that if all 50 states adopted a package of certain key climate policies, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions could be cut to 27 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Those reductions, the analysis found, would create 2.5 million new jobs and add $134 billion to the nation's GDP.

According to a release Thursday touting the PCAP report, these are the other four key areas Obama needs to take action on:

• Declare a “war on waste” to make America the most energy-efficient industrial economy in the world by 2035. During his presidential campaign, Obama cited a United Nations report ranking America 22nd in energy efficiency among the world's biggest economies.

• Push for a new national transportation policy that emphasizes low-carbon mobility choices, and start work on a national low-carbon standard for transportation fuels.

• Eliminate fossil-energy subsidies under the administration's control, including unnecessary research subsidies for fossil-energy industries and cut-rate leases and royalty fees for oil and gas companies.

• Include the restoration of local ecosystems in the administration's emerging climate adaptation strategy, re-establishing their ability to protect communities from flooding, heat waves, drought and other predicted impacts of climate change.

Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and special advisor to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said other states can and should follow California's lead on climate change issues. Colorado's renewable energy standard, for instance, is second only to California's goal of 33 percent by 2020.

“In California, we are 40 percent more energy efficient than the rest of the county,” Tamminen said, “and any of you who have been to California know that's not because we don't have our flat-panel TVs and Jacuzzis and air conditioners in the desert. It's because of measures that we've taken to make appliances and other uses of electricity much more efficient and to work with our utilities to incentivize conservation instead of just selling more electricity.”

David Orr, professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College, said there is a great deal of precedent for presidents using their executive order powers in times of national emergency, including Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression and George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11. Environmentally, he cited the 1970 formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency based on an executive order by Richard Nixon.

“In our political system, presidential leadership is absolutely essential to move any large-scale change,” Orr said. “No one else really can do it. The president has the power of the bully pulpit and has the power to put a very specific program before Congress and before the American public, in this case through executive orders.”

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