Barack ObamaPresident Obama’s inaugural address placed climate change and clean energy where they truly belong – among the most profound challenges of our time.  Our progress in addressing them over the next four years depends on how vigorously the president works to translate words into action, and whether there’s any willingness in Congress to join him in the effort.

We continue to believe that the most efficient way to reduce emissions is a market-based approach that puts a price on carbon.  While there may be virtually no chance of enacting a national greenhouse cap-and-trade program at the moment (even as 10 states and a growing number of countries are pushing ahead with carbon trading), Congress should seriously consider the next best option: a carbon tax.  A revenue-neutral carbon tax offsetting payroll or other taxes would help solve the nation’s mounting fiscal challenges while creating a market signal favoring clean energy and lower emissions.

Whether or not this Congress is prepared to pursue a comprehensive approach – and at the moment it appears unlikely – there is a lot the president can do on his own.  Indeed, the Clean Air Act mandates it.

On the transportation front, the administration can build on its new rules doubling the fuel economy and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of passenger vehicles by adopting stronger standards through 2025 for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.  On stationary sources, the administration can finalize its proposed rules for new power plants.  And it can set flexible emissions standards for existing power plants, which generate a third of U.S. carbon emissions, and allow states to meet them with a range of tools, including cap-and-trade.  The administration can also step up efforts to tackle short-lived climate forcers such as methane, black carbon and HFCs.

Internationally, the administration should work to ensure that a fresh round of U.N. climate negotiations now underway produces an agreement in 2015 that is ambitious yet sensible – one the United States can join.  It also should continue with strategies outside the U.N., such as the new coalition addressing short-lived forcers, and work to deliver a meaningful pact to reduce emissions from aviation. 

The United States’ ability to promote stronger global action, though, depends heavily on continued progress at home.  Above all, the president must continue making the case for action directly to the American people.  A year of record heat, drought and wildfire, capped by Hurricane Sandy, has underscored the here-and-now costs of climate change.  We need a reasoned, sustained conversation about the rising risks of a warming planet – and the economic opportunities of a clean-energy transition.  No one is better placed to lead that conversation than the president.