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Advice on climate policy for the 2020 presidential candidates


The Paris Agreement, with its goal of halting global warming short of 2 degree Celsius, conjures up an image of a temperature threshold which we dare not exceed, akin to Thelma and Louise knowingly and recklessly driving over a cliff to their ruin. 

For that hapless couple, there may have been a sudden abyss that they chose to breach. But in the case of global warming, a better metaphor might be that of the can that gets kicked down a road that becomes increasingly treacherous with every mile travelled. Due to our past reluctance to apply the brakes, the can is now farther down the road, and it is going faster than we realize.

The science is clear. When we include the pent-up momentum of the climate system, we have already committed to warming of at least 1.5 degree C. Moreover, with the additional heating that will occur as we reduce emissions to zero, a 2-degree limit is also in doubt.

Have no illusions. The case for coordinated action both nationally and internationally is compelling, even if the articulated temperature targets turn out to be only aspirational. The intensity of the wildfires in the West, the unrelenting flooding in the midsection of the country and the fury of hurricanes striking our coastlines are but a preview of what’s to come—just like the recognition of increases in the frequency of heatwaves and the severity of droughts.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the absurdity of inaction in the face of these risks. Continuing to kick the can down the road will place an intolerable burden on future generations. 

But all the news is not bad. Recent polls suggest that we may be entering a new era of public concern over climate change. The number of Americans witnessing the growing destruction has risen. Many see it out of their kitchen windows; all observe it on the evening news. 

Moreover, many state and local governments, corporations and individuals are joining the worldwide effort to halt carbon pollution. Although no substitute for U.S. leadership at the national level, these efforts may at least keep our metaphorical can in sight.

It is at the national level where action is most conspicuously absent. Bipartisan congressional support still will be essential even with a more sympathetic president. The question is how to obtain it. Perhaps, once the public becomes convinced that the unprecedented damages being observed are a preview of worse to come, they will demand action. And if the politicians believe they will be held accountable, they will respond. But while waiting for this scenario to play itself out, valuable time will be lost, and the planet will continue to warm.

More encouraging is the unprecedented attention being given to climate change among those vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. This is indeed good news. We offer the following suggestions to the candidates. 

Be ambitious, but not at the expense of credibility. Avoid offering up obviously unrealistic emission reduction timetables. It will only provide the naysayers with an opportunity for further procrastination as they challenge the practicality of the proposals.

Acknowledge that the carbon-producing and carbon-using capital stocks (powerplants, transport, buildings) cannot be changed overnight. Analysis of what constitutes a realistic pace is required, not just wishful thinking.  

Also, identify the losers in the transition away from fossil fuels—for example, coal miners and the municipalities and states in which they live. Describe programs that will aid those who cannot help themselves. This is not only the right thing to do, but it will also be politically expedient, removing barriers to moving forward.

Finally, a suggestion to Green New dealers: Navigating our climate future will be hard enough. Lumping it together with a long list of other societal objectives will only serve to enhance political gridlock. Refocus the conversation on the other Roosevelt—specifically Teddy Roosevelt’s “square deal.” That is, safeguard our natural resources, particularly the ecosystems upon which our prosperity depends. Preserve capitalism, not capitalism run amuck. And seek consumer protection, especially shielding lower income groups from an unfair share of the burden.

Richard Richels directed climate change research at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). He served as lead author for multiple chapters of the IPCC in the areas of mitigation, impacts and adaptation from 1992 through 2014.

Henry D. Jacoby is the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, Emeritus in the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management and former co-director of the M.I.T. Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. 


Tags Climate change electric power research institute Global warming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

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