Center for Progressive Reform

Climate Change

Time for Real Action on Global Warming

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 Justice

Given the scope of the damage from climate-driven wildfire, flooding, drought, and illness, litigation is inevitable, as individuals, organizations, and specific jurisdictions seek to hold industry accountable for its past and continuing behavior. Indeed, such litigation is the only way those who have suffered climate-related damage can seek recourse for loss of homes, livelihoods, health, and the death and injury of loved ones. Such litigation could also have an important impact on climate change policy in the United States.

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Carbon Pricing: Essential But Insufficient

With federal climate legislation once again part of the national conversation, the role of carbon pricing continues to be a hot-button issue. Some bipartisan initiatives center on a federal carbon fee, while the Green New Deal resolution introduced in the House is silent on market mechanisms, reflecting continuing policy debates among the diverse groups engaged in the initiative. This issue brief explains how carbon pricing is necessary, and then argues that it is both practically and politically insufficient for achieving a clean energy transition.

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Adapting to Climate Change

Climate change has already caused a variety of real-world impacts. Over time, with proper policy responses, some of these can be reversed, and some can be mitigated. But one important area for research and policymaking focuses on how we adapt to the various effects of climate change, even while working to undo or mitigate the causes and larger effects of climate change itself. At the leading edge of the storm are a number of communities, mostly Native American or Alaska Native, forced to relocate because of the very present impacts of climate change. 

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Uprooting Communities

Even as some politicians downplay the threat from climate change, a number of communities in the United States and across the globe have been forced to relocate to avoid being swallowed up by rising seas. The growing phenomenon of climate change-induced human displacement, migration, and relocation requires both a domestic and international policy response. Increasingly frequent and stronger storms, flooding, and wildfires, all linked to global climate change, displace hundreds of thousands of people a year. Read about climate-induced relocation, displacement and migration.

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Past Time to Move on Global Warming

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 by 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 CPR Member Scholar Lisa Heinzerling, who later became an EPA official in the Obama Administration, before returning to academia and CPR.)  The Court held for the states, setting in motion a regulatory process to limit emissions. 

Most observers agreed that the best policy approach on the problem would have been legislation that included measures tailored to the specific challenges of climate change. In the early years of the Obama Administration, Congress considered legislation to establish a "cap-and-trade" mechanism that would create a market for carbon emission allowances.  Polluters would have been allowed to emit certain levels of greenhouse gases.  If they produced less, they would have been able to sell to some other polluter the right to create emissions up to their cap.  But the legislation died in the Senate in the face of near-unanimous Republican opposition to any meaningful climate change legislation, as well as divisions among Democrats on specific responses. 

The failure of legislation prompted President Obama to direct the EPA to pursue regulatory options, a charge the agency embraced. The resulting set of regulations, most notably the Clean Power Plan, represent a significant step toward reducing U.S. global warming emissions, and paved the way for U.S. leadership on the issue, which in turn resulted in the historic Paris Agreement. All that said, the Trump administration and the Republican majority in Congress have taken dead aim at the Clean Power Plan, the Paris Agreement, and a variety of regulatory efforts to address this most central environmental challenge of our time. 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 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. With the collapse of legislative efforts around climate change, the threat of such undercutting provisions collapsed as well. Read more about CPR Member Scholars' work on climate change preemption.

Adaptation.  A third 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 developed a number of projects fleshing out ways that specific communities could respond to climate change, including one aimed at the Puget Sound region.

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