One of the biggest surprises of President Barack Obama's inaugural address on Monday was how much he focused on fighting climate change, spending more time on that issue than any other.
"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," Obama said.
The President pointed out that recent severe weather supplied an urgent impetus for energy innovation and staked the nation's economic future on responding to a changing climate.
"We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries—we must claim its promise," Obama said. "That's how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure—our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God."
So what could the President reasonably do to deliver on that vow? National Geographic asked experts in climate research, energy innovation, and oceanography. Here are ten of their suggestions:
1. Sunset coal with new incentives and regulations. "Provide incentives to phase out the oldest, most polluting power plants," said Robert Jackson, a climate scientist at Duke University. It's already happening, to some degree, as more of the nation transitions to natural gas. Earth scientist Bill Chameides, dean of Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and a former chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, urges the administration to use its Clean Air Act authority to promulgate carbon regulations for existing power plants like it has for new ones: "Doing that will force fuel switching from coal to natural gas." (Related: "6 Ways Climate Change Will Affect You.")
2. Invest federal stimulus money in nuclear power. It's hardly a perfect fuel, as accidents like Japan's Fukushima fallout have shown, but with safety precautions new nuclear plants can meaningfully offset dirtier types of energy, supporters say. "Nuclear is the only short- to medium-term way to really get away from fossil fuels," said Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden. He said the damage done by relentless global warming will far exceed the damage done by faults in the nuclear system.
3. Kill the Keystone pipeline. The controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline is up for review again by the White House this year. "The first thing he should do to set the tone to a lower carbon economy is to reject the Keystone pipeline," said Raymond Pierrehumbert, a geophysical scientist at the University of Chicago. The pipeline was never going to be a major driver of global emissions, but Pierrehumbert and some other environmentalists say that by killing it the President would send a clear message about America's intent to ramp down fossil fuels. (See pictures of the animals that helped kill the Keystone pipeline.)
4. Protect the oceans by executive order. Land use is complicated, but large swaths of oceans can be protected by executive fiat. Just as President George W. Bush designated the world's largest marine monument northwest of Hawaii in 2006, Obama could single-handedly protect other areas. National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle said the President should focus on parts of the Arctic that are under U.S. control, putting them off limits to energy production, commercial fishing, and mineral exploration. Marine sanctuaries won't stop climate change, but they can give marine species a better chance of adapting to it by reducing the other man-made threats the animals face. (Read about the many benefits of marine reserves.)
5. Experiment with capturing carbon. Huge untapped reserves of natural gas and oil make it unlikely that the U.S. will transition away from fossil fuels in the immediate future. Instead, said Wallace Broecker, geology professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, we should attack the atmosphere's carbon surplus directly. "[Obama] could make available funds to build and test prototype air capture units" to capture and store CO2, said Broecker. Removing some carbon from the atmosphere could buy valuable time as policy makers and scientists explore more permanent solutions.
6. Grow government research for new energy sources. The Department of Energy has a nimble program that's tasked with innovative energy research—the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. The ARPA-E funds research in biofuels, transmission, and battery storage, with an annual budget of $275 million. Last year, DOE officials requested at least $75 million more. Increasing funding for ARPA-E, said Rafe Pomerance, former deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and development and currently an environmental consultant, "you get new technologies that undercut coal, oil, and gas." Plus, he said, you get a competitive advantage if American researchers uncover the next big idea in new energy.
7. Tax carbon. Congress would have to agree, but many climate experts say that the most meaningful way to tackle emissions is to set a price on carbon. "We should be asking people to pay the cost of putting carbon into the atmosphere as they buy the fuel," said Josh Willis, climate scientist and oceanographer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. To gain political support for the idea, Obama would probably have to show that the tax would help accelerate technology, grow new industries, and pay down the deficit.
8. Dial back the federal government's energy use. With more than 1.8 million employees, $500 billion in annual purchasing power, and 500,000 buildings to operate, the federal government has been a leader in reducing energy use since Obama signed a 2009 executive order to cut waste. "I would urge him to keep using the power of government to promote energy conservation," said Syndonia Bret-Harte, an Arctic biologist who studies climate change at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
9. Build a scientific clearinghouse for climate information. "I advocate for building a better information system on what is happening and why," said Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research. That involves compiling observations related to climate change from around the world and using the data to refine climate modeling. Think of it as a one-stop, user-friendly website that clearly demonstrates how weather data from around the globe are influenced by broader shifts in the planet's climate.
10. Keep talking. Despite a consensus among top scientists, the world still needs some convincing on climate change. A CNN poll last week found that just 49 percent of Americans agree that global warming is real and is due to human activities. "The most important thing the President can do is to build on his inaugural comments to heighten the sense of urgency about rapid climate destabilization and clarify its connection to virtually every other issue on the national agenda," said David Orr, environmental studies professor at Oberlin College. That means using the bully pulpit to show how a more volatile climate affects everything from agriculture to transportation to 21st-century warfare.
Christine Dell'Amore, Rob Kunzig, and Jane J. Lee contributed reporting.