White House Takes Needed Steps on Climate

Late last week the Obama Administration released Federal agency climate plans that focus on the carbon pollution reductions that agencies are achieving, and the moves they’re making to fortify their facilities and protect their personnel from the impacts of climate change. These plans come on the fifth anniversary of the President’s 2009 Executive Order on Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance. That EO was aimed at getting federal agencies to walk the walk by cutting their own emissions and planning for the impacts of climate change on their facilities and workers.

The White House reports that as a result of actions already taken, the government has cut its carbon pollution by more than 17 percent since 2008, the equivalent of permanently taking 1.8 million cars off the road. That’s no small feat considering the federal government is the single largest energy user in the US.

The announcement and actions are part of President Obama’s overall Climate Action Plan, the centerpiece of which are historic initiatives to reduce carbon pollution from the two largest sources: vehicles and power plants. Those moves should get us to the Administration’s goal of cutting US carbon pollution emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.

There’s some good stuff in the agency Adaptation Plans announced on Friday. For example:

  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will require higher flood elevation for new HUD-funded hospitals, housing, and other vital community resources.  You don’t want new facilities to be flooded out by rising tides or more frequent riverine floods.
  • The General Services Administration will identify and address vulnerabilities in the agencies’ data centers, telecommunications equipment, and services supply chains.  For example, low-lying data centers or other equipment may be prone to service interruptions as flooding becomes more severe.  (These steps may sound small, but they’re crucial to enabling agencies to maintain operations, especially in times of crisis.)
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will release case studies from state and city health departments that have conducted climate vulnerability assessments. 
  • Agencies will increase their efforts to build resilience to climate change into grant-making and investment decisions and in the design and construction of new and existing agency facilities and infrastructure.

Same goes for the Sustainability Plans:

  • EPA will reduce heating and cooling loads at its labs and further save energy by converting from constant air flow systems to variable ones that respond to ventilation demand.
  • The General Services Administration and other agencies will implement energy efficiency measures such as cutting nighttime power demand from buildings and ensuring that massive heating and cooling systems stick to optimal seasonal temperature levels.
  • The FBI will issue sustainable design and construction specifications that require its new buildings to exceed current standards by 30 percent where cost-effective.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs will upgrade data collection systems so they can monitor the levels of greenhouse gases buildings emit, and help facilities managers better understand how to reduce emissions.

In news reports and press statements, the White House says federal agencies are meeting additional water, energy, and waste targets.  For example, the administration reports that agencies’ water use has dropped 19 percent since 2007, ahead of schedule to meet a goal of 26 percent by 2020. And that agencies are now getting more than 9 percent of their energy from renewable sources – exceeding the prior goal of 7.5 percent and putting them on track for a new goal set last year of 20 percent renewable energy use by 2020. 

That’s all good, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done. Nothing makes this clearer than the IPCC synthesis report released yesterday. The report comes out every five years and is the result of the work of the world’s leading climate scientists—hundreds of them in each related field. It’s the last word on the state of our changing climate.

And that word is not good at all.

Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.

In the starkest terms yet, the IPCC details how failure to cut emissions could lead to refugee crises, chronic food shortages, flooding of major cities, extinction of animals and plants, disappearance of island nations, and serious risks to basic human progress. Time is running out, the report makes clear, to make the serious cuts to the pollution that causes climate change.

The study notes that the problem is becoming more urgent as more countries become industrialized and burn more fossil fuels.

That’s why President Obama’s recently announced plan to cut global warming pollution from power plants--the single largest source in the US—is so significant. The move signals to other major emitting countries that the US—as the world’s second largest polluter--is serious about dealing with global warming. Along with the Administration’s fuel economy standards that require cars and light trucks to achieve 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, it should help the US to meet its stated target of reducing emissions 17% below 2005 levels by the year 2020.

When the US acts, it prompts other to do the same.

The European Union recently struck a tentative deal  to require its member countries to cut global warming pollution 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and China—the world’s largest global warming polluter—recently pledged to cut its emissions, reduce coal consumption, and increase the share of energy it gets from renewable sources like wind and solar power.

Some of these steps are small, some are large. But they all send a message—we can act, and we desperately need to do so.