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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.

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