Skip to main content

Obama is right on climate change

By Chris Field, Special to CNN
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Sat June 29, 2013
A home that was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy sits in ruin in Mantoloking, New Jersey, on November 12, 2012. There were 11 disaster events in 2012, each one causing more than $1 billion in damages, the <a href='http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/news/ncdc-releases-2012-billion-dollar-weather-and-climate-disasters-information' target='_blank'>National Climatic Data Center</a> said. Sandy's costs are estimated to be the highest at about $65 billion in losses, the center said. A home that was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy sits in ruin in Mantoloking, New Jersey, on November 12, 2012. There were 11 disaster events in 2012, each one causing more than $1 billion in damages, the National Climatic Data Center said. Sandy's costs are estimated to be the highest at about $65 billion in losses, the center said.
HIDE CAPTION
Billion-dollar weather disasters of 2012
Billion-dollar weather disasters of 2012
Billion-dollar weather disasters of 2012
Billion-dollar weather disasters of 2012
Billion-dollar weather disasters of 2012
Billion-dollar weather disasters of 2012
Billion-dollar weather disasters of 2012
Billion-dollar weather disasters of 2012
Billion-dollar weather disasters of 2012
Billion-dollar weather disasters of 2012
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chris Field: U.S. urgently needs to heed Obama's Climate Action Plan
  • He says we've been pumping massive amounts of CO2 into atmosphere since 1800s
  • He says our buildings, cars, power plants commit us to to a path that needs to change
  • Field: If we don't, we face weather extremes, threats to human health

Editor's note: Chris Field is the director of the Department of Global Ecology of the Carnegie Institution for Science and co-chair of a working group tasked with assessing climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

(CNN) -- The goals President Barack Obama set out Tuesday in his Climate Action Plan -- including cutting pollution from coal plants and aggressively pursuing clean energy alternatives -- won't solve all the challenges of climate change, but they are a big first step in protecting the planet from its worst effects. Getting serious about solutions is critically important, especially now and especially for the United States.

Why the rush? Climate change is driven by emissions of a range of heat-trapping gases, especially the total emissions of carbon dioxide, which have been pumping out since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. How much? Through 2012, that total is about 1,700 billion tons of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion and cutting down forests. In 2012, carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. were 19.4 tons per person or about 750 pounds per person per week.

Per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. may be lower now than they were in 1990, but the average American still emits three times the global average. Global annual carbon dioxide emissions continue to grow rapidly, with emissions in 2012 more than 50% above 1990 levels.

Recently, and for the first time in more than 2 million years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere climbed above 400 parts per million, 37% higher than in 1800. The resulting global warming, about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, will persist for at least 1,000 years.

Obama plans 'assault' on climate change
Skeptical environmentalist & a scientist
Global warming brings on more pollen

With every passing year, the pool of total carbon dioxide emissions grows bigger, causing more warming -- and more warming leads to greater damages from climate, weather extremes like heat waves, heavy rainfall, and coastal storm surge, as well as altered crop yields, threats to human health, and increased risks of wildfire.

The first step? Address the root of the issue, and this is why the action Obama outlined is smart. The plan recognizes the breadth of the problem and focuses on a wide range of emissions sources. It also recognizes that not all the damages can be avoided and that building resilience needs to be a part of the package.

Taking action now is also cost-effective. Slowing and eventually stopping emissions will take time. The global energy system producing most of the carbon dioxide emissions is massive, and includes thousands of power plants and more than a billion vehicles. The components of the energy system are long-lasting: Cars are driven for one to two decades. Power plants are designed to run for up to a half-century. Buildings, which use energy for heating, cooling, lighting, and running equipment, can stand for a century or more.

As things stand now, these realities commit us to continuing emissions into the future. Each new coal-fired power plant that goes online or inefficient vehicle that hits the road extends that commitment. In principle, we can retire existing infrastructure -- like energy-inefficient buildings and carbon-intensive power plants -- early, but such a rapid transformation of an entire energy system would be exorbitantly expensive, essentially because it involves scrapping equipment that has not lived out its useful life.

Building the energy system for the 21st century ambitiously but gradually, starting now, controls the costs by building for the long run and by enabling markets to innovate and drive down costs.

Why is U.S. leadership so important? First, the United States has the necessary skills in science and technology, the tradition of innovation, and the mature capital markets to boldly seize opportunities. Building the energy system of the 21st century is perhaps the greatest business opportunity of the era. It will involve a wide range of technologies that emit little or no carbon dioxide, with greatly increased energy efficiency in vehicles, buildings, and equipment.

Second, the U.S. is the only nation that can truly focus the world's attention on the climate problem. When the U.S. hangs back, it is easy for other countries to question goals or get tangled in internal politics.

U.S. leadership is critical in supercharging the international effort. Today is the day to start.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chris Field.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:22 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT