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Long-Term Climate Control Thwarted by Partisanship

President Barack Obama has called for a national commitment to controlling climate change, but the market approaches and limited regulatory measures the government has been capable of in the past won’t be able to deal with the problem fast enough to make much difference.

Obama’s near-term goal is to cut carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Much of what has been accomplished so far, though, has largely been due to power companies switching to cleaner fuels such as natural gas, and to lessen demand for electricity. The administration’s long-term objective — an 83 percent reduction by 2050 — is predicated on a profound shift in how the country gets its energy.

With a view to the future, the EPA proposed the first limits on carbon emissions from existing power plants earlier this month, setting pollution reduction goals for each state that could add up to a 30 percent cut from the 2005 emissions level by 2030. But that regulation will undoubtedly be mired in court battles for years once it’s finalized, and some environmental groups have cautioned that the rule itself won’t do enough to achieve the reductions needed to avert potentially dangerous warming.

The long-term goal also relies on future presidents tightening emissions levels through regulation or persuading Congress to do so with legislation. Should a Republican win the White House in 2016, both options would probably be off the table.

In either case, as the worldwide effects of climate change have become more apparent and more dangerous, environmental experts and many politicians have started talking about adapting to the changes and making society more resilient, while at the same time trying to reduce carbon emissions in hopes of lowering the warming trajectory before it’s too late.

The administration’s suggestion of establishing a $1 billion fund to prepare for the effects of climate change also acknowledges that not all of its climate policy can be implemented through executive orders and regulation. It further demonstrates that resiliency investments, many of which must be made at the local level, and the large amounts of cash they require would need broad congressional support.

A Gloomy Forecast

Recent studies have described the magnitude of the climate problem in stark terms. The federal government’s third National Climate Assessment, released in May, concluded that most Americans were already feeling the effects of climate change and things would get worse.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in April that emissions of greenhouse gases have risen to “unprecedented levels despite a growing number of policies to reduce climate change.”

The report holds out hope that disastrous warming could still be avoided, but not without major effort. Global emissions would need to be reduced by 40 percent, to 70 percent below 2010 levels, by 2050 and essentially cease by the year 2100 in order to have a shot at holding the increase in the global mean temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That’s the benchmark scientists and international negotiators have long regarded as the highest level that could be tolerated before dire consequences set in.

The Nobel Prize-winning group acknowledges that only “major institutional and technological change” would give the world better-than-even odds of staying within that 2-degree threshold.

In other words, it’s not looking good.

More people are talking about adapting to climate changes while figuring out the next step to dig society out of the carbon hole it’s created.

As the Gulf Coast learned from Hurricane Katrina and the New York region was taught by Superstorm Sandy, climate events can rack up huge costs. Scientific consensus says those kinds of weather events will only get more frequent as climate change intensifies. Not taking steps to adapt could drive disaster costs even higher.

The Obama administration has focused resources on infrastructure, convening a task force of state and local government officials to advise federal agencies on how they can better support local resilience.

Infrastructure upgrades in communities need local support above all else. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a longtime environmental advocate, said there is no shortage of public officials at the community level who recognize the challenges of dealing with climate impacts.

On a recent tour of the Atlantic coast in several Southern states, the Rhode Island Democrat said he found that “mayor after mayor after mayor in all of these red states, both Republican mayors and Democrat mayors, understand what climate change is doing to their coasts.”

That could drive up costs for localities and the federal government. The National Flood Insurance Program now owes the Treasury $24 billion, the bulk of which was spent post-Katrina. Rising sea levels would only increase the incidence of flooding and drive the program further into debt.

Some steps for adapting to climate change don’t necessarily cost a lot, said Jay Gulledge, a senior adviser at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an independent group formerly known as the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. City planners, he said, will be central in determining how metropolises grow, from deciding where to put things to picking what building materials to use.

“It’s more about ways of building and living that are more comfortable, that have lower greenhouse gas emissions, and that would withstand potential impacts of climate change in a better way,” Gulledge said.

Beyond the regulations he can oversee, the president’s strategy has been to stay engaged with other countries and with state and local officials from both parties at home, who will bear much of the burden in adapting to climate change.

“My theory,” said Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, “has been that focusing on the impacts of climate change, building bipartisan support to address the impacts of climate change, is a very important piece of” the strategy.

But adaptation has its limitations. Conflicting signals from different levels of government, insufficient resources and problems with anticipating risks unique to particular areas can all impede planning.

Nevertheless, reports such as the National Climate Assessment make it clear that both mitigation and adaptation must be pursued as complementary climate strategies for society to stand a chance of dealing effectively with the changing planet.

“We need to do a lot in both,” Obama adviser Holdren said. “There are enormous opportunities on both fronts.”