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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT