3 Viable Paths for Fixing Climate in Obama's Second Term

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If we tackle this problem in earnest, the rewards far exceed the pain.

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A tattered flag in front of a home damaged by Sandy in Brooklyn, New York (Reuters)

Two things have happened since the obscure holiday of St. Crispin' day, October 25, this year. First, Hurricane Sandy emphatically reset the American conversation on climate change. A recent cover of Bloomberg Businessweek was "It's Global Warming, Stupid!" Second, the presidential candidate who understands climate science and wants to take action has been elected. In his victory speech Obama said: "We want our children to live in an America that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."

In history, St. Crispin's day happens to have marked two legendary battles where armies overcame overwhelming odds. The U.S. and Australia's improbable victory, outgunned and outnumbered, at Leyte Gulf during World War II, was one. And in 1415 at Agincourt, Henry V and his men used longbows to defeat the numerically superior French forces. It's worth noting that the catastrophic Charge of the Light Brigade also happened on St. Crispin's day, reminding us that great boldness often carries great consequences.

Perhaps this year, St. Crispin's day marked another improbable victory against all odds: The date when Americans finally started talking about realistic paths to climate solutions.

Where do we go from here? There are at least three viable options today, and here they are:

The Light Brigade: A Frontal Assault on Climate

It has become abundantly clear that adaptation, the climate solution recommended by Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon, is a joke and a myth. "Adaptation" looks like lower Manhattan under four feet of water. The upside of that harsh truth is that government officials like Michael Bloomberg, Andrew Cuomo, Obama, and maybe even Chris Christie, are beginning to realize what conservative Yale economist William Nordhaus has been saying for years: It's going to cost more not to deal with climate change than to fix it.

With that in mind, and knowing that Obama does see climate as a huge problem, it's possible he could pursue actual legislation to reel in carbon emissions.

The right path wouldn't be tepid support for a wildly complex fraud-incubating cap and trade program. Rather, it would be a creative, bipartisan policy fix supported by the left and by Grover Norquist Tea Partying Republicans.

The approach, proposed by a group called Citizen's Climate Lobby and suggested in similar form by climatologist James Hansen, is a fee on carbon at the wellhead or mine, refunded back to the consumer. "Fee and dividend" looks like your heating, electric, and car fillup costs going up by, say, $50 each month (though the cost could rise), but a check for the same amount arriving at your mailbox every quarter. The idea: create a revenue-neutral market incentive for our economy to decarbonize, without adding a new tax. The right likes this approach because it's not a tax and because it creates a market incentive to fix climate. The left likes it because a carbon fee is the sine qua non of fixing climate change. Will this alone slow the rise of the oceans? Of course not. But it's the first step, it signals intent and creates policy certainty, and China will take notice. A simpler approach -- a straight tax on carbon -- is now gaining traction as part of a deal to fix the fiscal cliff.

Leyte Gulf: Fixing Climate through Tax Reform

Even though the above policy fix makes wonks drool, it would be pretty bold for Obama to go after climate directly, given the insane partisanship in the country, and the outsized bickering around this issue. That's why it's a kind of Light Brigade approach. So perhaps he needs to tackle it obliquely, the same way Americans won the Battle of Leyte Gulf, forced into using smaller, nimble ships to fight more powerful opposition forces. A policy version of this tactic might be to attack climate from the sides, through tax reform, which both John Boehner and Obama see as necessary.

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Auden Schendler is Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and author of the book Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution. Previously a sustainability researcher at Rocky Mountain Institute, Auden currently serves on the board of Protect Our Winters. He was named a global warming innovator by TIME magazine in 2006.

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