Boston got a taste of what global climate change could look like last week. The so-called “King Tide,” which is the astronomical high tide of the year, saw Boston Harbor’s waters spill onto Long Wharf, the Harborwalk and other waterside features in the city. Climate experts said the tide, now an anomaly, could reflect what a normal high tide could look like by mid-century.
Regardless of who wins next month’s election, he or she will have some tough decisions to make about global climate change and commitments the U.S. made as part of the Paris agreement.
The U.S. has set a 2025 deadline to reduce greenhouse gases by 26 percent to 28 percent of its 2005 levels. That’s a high bar for the nation to hit in just nine years, and analysts fear the current track will see the U.S. miss its target by almost 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide – nearly a fifth of its goal.
That leaves a lot of room for the next president to make his or her mark, according to Dr. Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager with the Climate and Energy program at the Boston-based Union of Concerned Scientists.“It sounds ambitious but we have a number of solutions to help us get there now,” said Cleetus. “We can not only meet [the 2025 target], but we can exceed it, and ramp it up with an even more ambitious 2030 target.”
Doing so will require a mix of regulatory and legal changes to promote clean energy research and production, preserving natural carbon sinks such as forests, and changing personal and industrial consumption patterns.
“We need economy-wide incentives to move to this clean energy economy, and that has to happen through the congress,” said Cleetus.
See our story on Boston Underwater
The next president won’t be able to do it alone, however. Cleetus said the next Congress must also become more engaged in trying to curb climate change.
Many of the changes made during the Obama administration came through regulatory changes at the executive agency level. Legal changes need the legislative branch’s attention, she said.
“We have gone a long time with a Congress that has not stepped up to the plate, and that has to change...” Dr. Rachel Cleetus
“The regulatory actions are based on regulations that congress has passed. It wasn’t the EPA going off and coining its own thing, it was doing its job,” Cleetus said. “We have gone a long time with a Congress that has not stepped up to the plate, and that has to change.”
Cleetus said the next president and Congress could find a mix of carrots and sticks to help drive down carbon dioxide emissions over the next few years.
“They can create incentives for clean-energy technologies They can invest in [research and development] for the next generation of clean technology, something that has languished for a while. They could rein back fossil-fuel incentives that are still around,” she said.
Both candidates address climate change on their official websites, though in different ways. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton devotes a page of her site to the issue, outlining plans to strengthen the current regulatory approach with grant funding for regional, state and local planning to cut carbon and methane emissions, investing in clean energy infrastructure and eliminating incentives for fossil fuel production.
Clinton also has set goals to rebuild coal country with a combination of infrastructure, education and clean energy research grants.
Republican nominee Donald Trump does not address climate change directly on his campaign site, but does speak to some climate change issues indirectly as part of his energy policy. Under Trump’s plan, he would roll back regulations that impede the U.S.’s ability to generate domestic energy, promote shale oil, coal and natural gas production, and would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement.
The Trump plan includes language promising to focus on “rational environmental concerns. We are going to conserve our beautiful natural habitats, reserves and resources.”
Those natural habitats are already seeing an impact from climate change, according to Cleetus. The devastating floods left in the wake of Hurricane Matthew wasn’t a solitary event for Haiti, Florida and North Carolina.
“The same places that got hit hard by [Hurricane] Floyd close to two decades ago are the places that are getting hit again with Matthew,” Cleetus said. “We aren’t doing right by our frontline communities.”
It’s not a problem that a future president can limit to one region, she said. Boston’s king tides proved that global climate change will require a nationwide approach.
“The reality is we’re already seeing high tide flooding in many places along the east and gulf coasts. That’s today,” she said. “And when you add sea level rise projections, you can see the flooding will become more and more consistent.”
Cleetus said she believes the next president and Congress should focus on the evidence as they try to solve the problems presented by climate change.
“We need a President and Congress that don’t make science a partisan issue. Make science central to good policy-making. We can’t make the right decisions if we keep ignoring the science,” she said.