Man-made climate change poses a severe threat to the future health of the planet and all that live on it. The good news is that we know what causes it, and know how to slow it down, and even stop it. The bad news is that we have made far too little progress, in great measure because we lack the political will. Some climate change has already happened, but much more awaits if we remain on the current trajectory.
CPR Member Scholars have worked to address three specific areas of climate change research and scholarship: Mitigating and Preventing the harm from climate change; and Adapting to climate change; Laying bare efforts by industry and others to preempt meaningful state and regional climate change efforts with a federal bill that would do too little to prevent climate change.
Climate change has already caused a variety of real-world impacts. Some can be reversed, and some can be mitigated. But an important and underdeveloped area for research and policymaking focuses on how we adapt to the various effects of climate change.
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One key sticking point in congressional climate-change efforts was was a push by industry and conservatives to include provisions in the federal bill preempting regional, state and local efforts to combat greenhouse gas emissions, thus hobbling efforts by the only governmental actors that have made any real progress on the issue.
The Clinton Administration mostly missed its chance on climate change; the Bush Administration actively fought progress; and legislation during President Obama's first term died in the Senate at the hands of Republican opposition and Democratic division. The best remaining hope for action at the federal level is EPA regulation.
Man-made climate change is as severe an environmental threat as anything in history of the planet. A quick review of the basics: human-caused pollution in the form of carbon dioxide and other emissions is collecting in the atmosphere, trapping heat from the sun and gradually warming the planet. The impact is already observable in a variety of ways: warmer average temperatures, more severe weather patterns, changes in migratory patterns of various animals as they seek cooler temperatures, abandoned habitat of many animal and plant species as conditions change, melting glaciers, and more. Down the road – and not that far down the road at current rates of polluting emissions – the effects will grow more severe: rising sea levels will reclaim land, displacing people and forever altering ecosystems; disruption of snowmelt cycles and melting glaciers will likely cause severe water shortages; warmer ocean water will give added punch to hurricanes; changing weather patterns and ocean temperatures will likely devastate existing ecosystems, kill coral reefs, and introduce new insects and other pests to cities and farms alike; and more. Indeed, all of these trends are already beginning.
The good news about climate change is that we have technologies on hand to take an enormous bite out of the current load of greenhouse gas emissions. Hybrid cars and other cleaner vehicles, together with cleaner energy generation hold great promise. And conservation of energy – appliances and vehicles that require less fuel – can make a huge difference, as well.
Mitigation and Prevention. One focus of CPR scholarship has been public policy aimed at preventing and mitigating climate change -- that is, trying to prevent it, to the extent possible, or mitigate its impact. During most of the Bush Administration, the President's allies in Congress blocked legislation, while his appointees in the Executive Branch argued alternately that climate change wasn't human-induced, that it would be too costly to do anything about, and that the EPA lacked authority to do anything. In 2007, the Supreme Court took the legs out from under the latter argument, in a case brought 12 states and several local jurisdictions arguing that EPA had not only the authority but the obligation to regulation carbon dioxide emissions. (Their brief to the Court was written by then-CPR Member Scholar Lisa Heinzerling, now an EPA official in the Obama Administration.) The Court held for the states, setting in motion a regulatory process to limit emissions.
That process will no doubt be significantly affected by legislation now working its way through Congress. The bill under consideration would establish a "cap-and-trade" mechanism that would create a market for carbon emission allowances. Polluters would be allowed to emit certain levels of greenhouse gases. If they produced less, they would be able to sell to some other polluter the right to create emissions up to their cap. CPR Member Scholars have blogged the bill and its progress through Congress, following changes in the bill and their likely impact on global warming. Read more about CPR Member Scholars work on mitigation and prevention.
Climate Change Preemption. Another focus of CPR Member Scholars' work has been to draw out the issues surrounding industry efforts to make sure that any federal climate change law includes a provision preempting -- that is to say, undercutting -- state and local climate change policies. The Member Scholars have argued that preemption would undo the only significant progress on climate change made by any level of government in the United States, would run counter to the longstanding approach on environmental laws of establishing federal standards as a "floor" upon which stronger state and local standards might be built, and would hobble overall efforts to address climate change by tying the hands of the governmental entities best equipped to address such critical climate change issues as urban sprawl, zoning matters, renewable energy portfolio requirements for utilities and more. Read more about CPR Member Scholars' work on climate change preemption.
Adaptation. A relatively new area of CPR scholarship relates to policy aimed at how we adapt to the effects of climate change that we can no longer prevent. CPR Member Scholars are now developing a paper on the subject to be published in the near future.
Some recent highlights: