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September 12, 2016

Responding To: The Challenge of Climate Change

Big Challenges Demand Political Will

Victoria Arroyo

Americans understand that our climate is changing. But many people see the threat as being too big or too distant to address now. They often don’t know what they—or their representatives in government—can do to make a tangible difference.

The path to overcoming these obstacles is clear. We need strong and consistent political will at all levels of government. Reducing the emissions that cause climate change and adapting to the many impacts of a warming world, such as record-breaking extreme weather events, must be a priority of our government leaders. Political leadership and policy changes are needed to promote technological and behavioral shifts, engage the public, and implement change.

The encouraging news is that such leadership has begun to emerge.

The Paris Agreement negotiated and embraced by nearly 200 countries last December was a turning point in the global commitment to climate action. Each nation pledged to make “nationally determined contributions” to cut carbon pollution emissions, marking the first time that developed and developing countries signed on to fight climate change together.

The Obama Administration has laid a foundation for climate action with significant initiatives that cut carbon pollution from vehicles and power plants and to prepare for climate impacts.

We now have stricter national standards for both passenger vehicles and heavy-duty trucks that improve fuel efficiency, reduce carbon pollution, and save billions in fuel costs. The Clean Power Plan requires states to develop their own plans to reduce emissions from power plants. Together, these initiatives would contribute significantly to the U.S. ability to meet its target of cutting carbon pollution from 2005 levels by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, and to slash emissions 32 percent by 2030.

Successfully meeting these goals also requires state leadership. In August, California became the first state to issue a proposed plan consistent with the Clean Power Plan that includes use of its cap-and-trade program, renewable portfolio standard, and energy efficiency standards. Even some of the states opposing the Clean Power Plan in court are joining supporters in preparing to comply with it.

New York has set a 50 percent renewable energy mandate. Massachusetts has passed a new law requiring substantial hydroelectric and offshore wind power generation. And Vermont has given its towns and regions more control over planning renewable energy projects and set an ambitious long-term renewables target of 75 percent.

Effective climate action also requires building resilience to impacts, including rising seas and heat waves. Cities and states are on the front lines of experiencing climate change impacts and in promoting adaptation and preparedness. Lessons from their climate plans, projects, and reports are available through our Adaptation Clearinghouse developed and maintained by our Georgetown Climate Center staff and students. It also provides a tool to track progress in meeting state and local adaptation goals.

My hometown of New Orleans, the country’s wettest and arguably most vulnerable city, has used both hard infrastructure like sea walls and pumps and softer “green” infrastructure such as parks and rain gardens to manage water. New York City, post-Sandy is also designing solutions that both hold back water and provide for recreational use and improved quality of life year-round.

Ongoing activities to build resilience and reduce carbon pollution represent important progress. Building on this progress and meeting the challenge before us requires a lasting commitment by strong-willed leaders to promote a cleaner and more resilient future through policy and investment.

Vicki Arroyo is the executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, the assistant dean of centers and institutes, and a professor from practice. She previously served at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, most recently as the Pew Center's Vice President for Domestic Policy and General Counsel. She is the author and editor of numerous climate change publications and a TEDGlobal speaker.

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