ONE: Stop the Pipeline
Is it in our national interest to overheat the planet? That's the question Obama faces in deciding whether to approve Keystone XL, a 2,000-mile-long pipeline that will bring 500,000 barrels of tar-sand oil from Canada to oil refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Greenlighting the $7 billion pipeline would help feed America's addiction to oil – but it would also send a clear signal that Obama ranks cheap gas as a higher priority than a stable climate. Activist and writer Bill McKibben, who organized protests at the White House to stop the pipeline, calls the decision "a defining moment of the Obama years."
THREE: Crack Down on Carbon
NASA climate scientist James Hansen has called coal, the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels, "the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet." But Obama has failed to curb carbon pollution from coal plants. He didn't manage to push a program to cap and trade carbon emissions through Congress when he had the chance, and there's no way he can win approval for a straight-up carbon tax. But now he has a chance to do it the old-fashioned way: by wielding the power of the executive branch.
Following a 2007 ruling by the Supreme Court, the EPA has the responsibility to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant. The agency is working on new rules that would cut carbon pollution from power plants – the country's single biggest source of planet-warming emissions. The question is: How tough will they be? To make Big Coal really clean up its act, the standards need to be set at roughly the same pollution levels produced by natural gas – about 1,100 pounds of pollution per megawatt hour of electricity. "That would essentially end the construction of conventional coal plants in America," says Vickie Patton, general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. "But if the standards are significantly looser, they could have the perverse effect of actually encouraging the construction of a new generation of plants." The ultimate outcome – no more coal plants, or far too many – is entirely in Obama's hands.
TEN: Use the Bully PulpitSome of the suggestions, such as using the bully pulpit or making conservation patriotic (something I've urged for a long time), are just about good ol' fashioned leadership. But some of the others, such as regulating greenhouse gases under EPA's current Clean Air Act authority, require a little more boldness. Many have said that greenhouse gas regulation under the current rules would be impracticable. But that's entirely the point. If the President were to make such a move, it would put the ball in Congress's court to come up with a better solution. Until he does that, Congress has no reason to disrupt the statuts quo, and no progress will be made. And that's exactly how Obama can defend the move from critics. The President has utilized heated rhetoric in attacking Congress, including Democrats, on several occasions. With its low approval rating, it's not hard to see why. Taking the offensive on the environment would be yet another front in this fight.
Ever notice how often the phrase "climate change" pops up in Obama's speeches? Not much – only 20 times in the past year, and fewer than half as many as the year before. The president has failed to make a big issue-defining speech on global warming, failed to defend the climate scientists being attacked by Big Oil, and failed to blast congressional climate deniers like Sen. James Inhofe, who shamelessly and stupidly dismiss global warming as a "hoax."
In fact, Obama's refusal to speak out on the risks and moral obligations of climate change may well be his biggest failure as president. "He has been silent on the defining issue of our time, letting Big Oil and the deniers define the debate," says Joe Romm, a leading climate advocate who served as assistant energy secretary under Bill Clinton. "In some sense, he has been a bigger failure than Bush – because Obama knows better. He knows exactly what is at stake."
Insiders insist the president is running a "stealth campaign" on climate change, quietly going after coal and oil by tightening air-pollution and fuel-efficiency standards. But Obama alone has the power to elevate global warming to the forefront of the international agenda, where it belongs. He must use his remarkable rhetorical skill to explain to the world that the fossil-fuel era is coming to an end – and inspire us all to take action, no matter what the cost. "Obama needs to make a decision," Romm says. "Does he want to be remembered as the president who had the best chance of taking action on climate – but who failed to stop the catastrophe?"