Among political insiders in Washington, the conventional wisdom is that action on global climate change is a dead issue for the foreseeable future. But that need not, and should not, be the case

The atmospheric thermostat isn’t on hold while we wait for a better political moment.  And outside the beltway where voters are dealing with drought, floods, fires and heat waves – and soon, higher food prices — the right political moment may already have arrived. What remains is for our current and prospective elected leaders to seize it.

That might not be as difficult as some think. In a poll last March by George Mason University and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 82 percent of respondents said they had personally experienced one or more extreme weather events during the previous year; more than one in three Americans said they had been personally harmed by extreme weather. A Gallup poll the same month found that 77 percent of Americans say they are “personally worried” about global warming. The well-documented risk is that these impacts will grow much more severe if we don’t address them.

At this point in the campaign, neither Gov. Romney nor President Obama has said much about the issue. It may be an uncomfortable topic for them. A year ago, Gov. Romney acknowledged anthropogenic global warming and said “it’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases.”

Several months later, he flip-flopped without apology. In the only mention of the climate issue on his official campaign website, he supports taking away EPA’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. Romney’s site lays out his positions on 24 issues, but environment is not among them.

On the closely related issue of energy policy, Gov. Romney boasts that “the United States is blessed with a cornucopia of carbon-based energy resources” – the resources most responsible for anthropogenic global warming. He decries the federal government’s support for technologies such as wind and solar, but mentions nothing about subsidies to oil, coal, gas or nuclear power. He wants to restrict government support for renewable energy to basic research, in effect ending the government’s efforts to expedite the commercialization of technologies we need for a clean energy technology.

President Obama has been criticized for not doing enough in his first term. As president-elect in 2008, he said “now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all”, and his presidency would “mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change”. However, he failed to throw the full weight of his presidency behind the cap-and-trade bill that eventually died with a whimper in Congress in 2010.

With all due respect, the central theme of the President’s energy strategy – “All of the Above” – is a cop-out. It’s what politicians say when they want to make everyone happy, in this case the well-endowed fossil energy industries. The reality is that America needs to make some very tough choices about energy in the next four years, in favor of those that don’t pollute.

It would be profoundly irresponsible for the candidates to avoid specific commitments on mitigating climate change, and profoundly irresponsible for the media and voters to let them. Few people in the United States, in red states or blue, are escaping the destructive weather we’ve seen in recent years – weather that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists say will be more likely and more extreme in the years ahead.

To encourage a direct and detailed discussion of global warming, the Presidential Climate Action Project is being revived this year.  We are offering to consult with each of the presidential candidates and their policy staffs on how to address global warming in ways that are consistent with conservative, moderate and liberal values.

During the 2008 campaign and the first two years of the Obama Administration, PCAP provided all of the presidential candidates and the White House with volumes of information on how Congress and the president could reform federal policies and programs to deal with the emerging realities of global warming.

Anticipating an uncooperative Congress, our primary focus was what the president could do unilaterally by exercising his or her executive authority. While the Obama Administration could have been more aggressive in pushing cap-and-trade legislation, it has used its authorities in a variety of ways to address climate change, ranging from executive orders to improve the environmental practices of the federal government and to protect the integrity of its climate research, to an historic increase in vehicle efficiency standards and EPA’s decision to go forward with the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Political insiders argue – and it’s true — that climate change doesn’t appear on the list of the voters’ top concerns. The list is dominated by the economy, along with the budget deficit, health care and the environment in general. But it doesn’t take a climate scientist to see that our changing weather has a significant impact on each of those issues. Rising food prices aren’t going to help the families trying to make ends meet. Extreme weather doesn’t help bring down budget deficits, with the government’s costs going up for disaster assistance and taxpayer-supported flood and crop insurance.

As Nicholas Stern and others have warned for a long time, addressing climate change now is far cheaper than trying to address it later, when the impacts have grown worse, some beyond mitigation. Arguing that the economy should eclipse the more insidious problem of global warming is like trying to fix the furnace while the house is burning down.

As for public health, a peer-reviewed study by the Natural Resources Defense Council predicts that in America’s 40 largest cities, an additional 33,000 people will die from heat-related causes alone over the next four decades if climate change goes unabated. That doesn’t count heat-related illness, injuries from natural disasters, or health problems related to air pollution.

The bottom line is this: We should not accept political paralysis on a problem as devastating and irreversible as global climate change, and we should not allow national candidates to ignore the issue during the 2012 campaign. If we expect nothing from our leaders, that is exactly what we’ll get.

With Congress paralyzed late last year, President Barack Obama decided to assert his authority more aggressively on a number of issues: “If Congress refuses to act, I’ve said that I’ll continue to do everything in my power to act without them.” He coined a slogan: “We Can’t Wait”.

Global climate change certainly falls into the “we can’t wait” category. It’s a very bad influence on things voters care about – a healthy economy, affordable food, protection from natural disasters, lower taxes, control of federal spending, and the safety of the nation’s infrastructure, to name a few. That should lift global warming to the top of the candidates’ platforms and the next president’s agenda.

So, when the first presidential debate takes place on Oct. 3 in Denver with a focus on domestic issues, somebody should ask the candidates this question:

Top climate experts are saying that global climate change will increase the likelihood we’ll see much more extreme weather in the future, even more severe than the droughts, floods, wildfires and heat waves we’re seeing today. Let’s assume that the Congress remains deadlocked next year on the climate issue. What will you do as president to address the risk that these experts are correct?

If either candidate answers that climate science is not sufficiently certain to justify presidential intervention, the moderator should reject that answer. Scientists will continue working on the science; the relevant question for the president and Congress is how the federal government will help the nation reduce and prepare for the risks that global warming is upon us and likely to grow much worse.

If either candidate responds that the president is relatively powerless and the question should be directed to Congress, then it will be time to dust off the recommendations some of us advocated four years ago about what a president can do. With apologies to those who have read these before, here is a reprise of the analysis we offered to the candidates in 2008:

It is true that the Constitution gives the Executive Branch relatively little authority compared to Congress, which makes the nation’s laws and controls the government’s purse strings. The president is not without tools, however. They include executive orders; directives and memoranda; the veto; signing statements; National Security Directives; the authority to call Congress into special session; the ability to enter into Executive Agreements with other nations without the advice and consent of the Senate; the president’s role as Commander in Chief and Chief and his job as Chief Executive of the nation’s largest institution, plus some extraordinary powers the president can use during national emergencies.  And, of course, there’s the power of the bully pulpit.

In addition, past Congresses have delegated specific powers to the president, including many related to protecting the environment and enhancing our energy security.  In a legal analysis the Presidential Climate Action Project commissioned during the last campaign, the Center for Energy and Environmental Security at the University of Colorado School of Law (CEES) found that presidents issued 370 executive orders related to energy and the environmental from 1937 through 2006, based on 112 statutory authorities put into the U.S. Code by past Congresses.

Presidents are on safest ground when their actions are based on a clear statutory authorization.  When the president appears to overstep his statutory authority, he can be challenged in the courts. However, CEES found:

When it comes to analyzing presidential claims of statutory authorization…the courts have not yet settled on a clear set of rules for the analysis…(but) the most common theme is for the courts to show deference to a president’s interpretation of statutes…Overall, presidents have a history of faring well when their executive orders are challenged in court.

A weakness of one of the president’s most common tools – executive orders — is that they can be undone by Congress or future presidents. A future president can simply issue a new order that makes his predecessor’s obsolete.  A hostile Congress can attempt to revoke some of the Executive Branch’s powers, as the House tried to do last year when it voted to take away EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.  But as we’ve seen in the Senate, procedural rules can be used to block that kind of retaliation, and so could strong public support for executive action if the next president clearly explains to the American people why it is necessary.

A “We Can’t Wait” president will push the envelope on executive authority. It has been done before. To protect the nation’s natural resources, President Theodore Roosevelt pushed presidential authority beyond the boundaries set by his predecessors and sometimes beyond specific statutory authorization. He believed he was duty-bound to do so. In his words:

I did and caused to be done many things not previously done by the President and the heads of departments. I did not usurp power but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power. In other words, I acted for the common well being of all our people whenever and in whatever measure was necessary, unless prevented by a direct constitutional or legislative prohibition.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt stretched the boundaries even farther. To deal with World War II and the Great Depression, he sometimes took action first and asked Congress for permission after the fact. According to the CEES:

To make great change, a president can go to the broader end of the spectrum. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration exemplifies the most expansive philosophy regarding use of executive authority…. Roosevelt aggressively sought expansion of executive authority by obtaining additional statutory delegations and actively used statutory delegations as authority for executive action to “attack” economic crisis and military foes. The success of his administration was to some extent circumstantial, due to a supportive Congress, popularity with the people, and historical situations that instilled in the nation a sense of urgency. However, it is not improbable that one or more of these circumstances would again present themselves, especially in light of recent scientific findings regarding the implications of climate change and the growing consensus as to the urgency of the problem (emphasis mine).

The Justice Department and the president’s judicial appointments may also influence energy and climate policy in the years just ahead.  The U.S. Supreme Court has already substantiated EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases are a danger to public health and welfare has since been upheld by lower courts.

Our litigious citizens now are testing a variety of additional legal issues, recently summarized by the Congressional Research Service. Can the Endangered Species Act be used to restrict greenhouse gas emissions based on evidence that climate change degrades critical habitat? When should carbon emissions be addressed in Environmental Impact Statements? What about the liability, property rights and regulatory issues that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) would trigger? Can they be resolved? Or are they so difficult that we’re wasting taxpayers’ money by subsidizing CCS?

Will federal insurance programs have to cover damages caused by climate change? If so, how will we handle the increased cost to taxpayers? Can electric utilities be forced to pay damages to citizens and communities because they knowingly emitted carbon pollution that contributes to climate change?

What impact will climate-induced water scarcity have on the volatile subject of water rights? Can governments be ruled negligent if they fail to avert the harmful impacts of climate change, such as flooding and sea level rise? How will we treat people who try to enter the United States from Mexico and other countries as “climate refugees”? Has climate change risen to the level of a national emergency? If so, what exactly are the president’s “extraordinary powers”?

And again, the overarching question: If Congress cannot or will not deal with the rising risks and evident dangers of global warming, will the president? It’s a very good question. We should insist that Gov. Romney and President Obama answer it.

Guest Post by Bill Becker. Bill is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project. The project’s specific policy recommendations to the 44th President and Congress are posted on its website.