With record high temperatures in the United States last year and a nation still reeling from Superstorm Sandy, President Barack Obama seized the moment by underscoring in his inauguration speech last week that he intends to make dealing with climate change a national priority. Attitudes toward the danger of greenhouse gas emissions are evolving, and the president now has to match his words with deeds without letting the powerful gas, oil or coal industries or their congressional allies kill the effort.
The predictions of climate scientists on rising seas and a warming planet no longer feel so theoretical. After years of long droughts, raging wildfires and high storm surges along with temperatures routinely on the warm side of normal, the evidence is mounting. The United States must prepare for this future by hardening infrastructure while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It's true that developing countries such as China and India are major contributors to emissions pollution, but that doesn't negate the United States' responsibility to lead.
The federal government must take another run at capping greenhouse gas emissions. When cap-and-trade, an effort to cap emission levels and allow the trading of emissions permits, was shelved in 2010, it put climate change on the back burner in Congress. Now Obama is planning to use his regulatory powers to bring change.
One area ripe for regulatory reform is coal-fired power plants, the nation's largest producers of greenhouse gases. The Environmental Protection Agency is already using its authority to reduce emissions in new plants. Now it should expand that to existing plants. New limits would decrease plant emissions by 25 percent or more by 2020 — environmental gains that would come from relatively small financial investments.
Another initiative will encourage energy conservation. Just as Obama sharply raised fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, the administration is expected to require better energy efficiency from major appliances and buildings.
Congressional Republicans should note that public support for their do-nothing approach to climate change is slipping. A recent CNN/ORC International survey found that 49 percent now say global warming is a proven fact and is due to emissions from cars, power plants and factories. That's double the percentage who say that global warming has not been proven. Another 24 percent say that it is a fact but is not due to manmade sources.
Florida's miles of coastline are especially susceptible to powerful hurricanes from a warming planet and extreme flooding from rising seas. There may be reasonable disagreements over precisely what steps to take. But doing nothing in the name of protecting the oil, gas and coal industries would, as Obama warns, betray our children.