How the White House thinks about climate change, in 7 charts

March 15, 2013

The latest Economic Report of the President (pdf) has a whole chapter on energy and climate change that's worth reading as a window into how the White House thinks about the topic. Here's the basic story in chart form:

1) If the world doesn't tackle global warming soon, the United States will get uncomfortably hot. "For example, according to the USGCRP estimates, under a high-emissions scenario, areas of the Southeast and Southwest that currently experience an average of 60 days a year with a high temperature above 90°F will experience 150 or more such days by the end of the century."

2) U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions are falling, but the country's nowhere near on pace to meet its climate goals. Under the Copenhagen Accord, President Obama promised a 17 percent cut in emissions below 2005 levels by 2020. We're not quite there.

3) Most of the recent drop in emissions has been due to the recession. That said, improved energy efficiency and a shift from coal to renewable energy and natural gas have also played a big role.

4) The U.S. economy is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. And note that even when it comes to renewable energy, wind and solar still play a small role compared to biomass, biofuels, and hydropower:

5) Natural gas is going to continue to dominate for years to come. The White House is bullish on the shale-gas boom. Natural gas competes with coal and is a lot cleaner —producing fewer carbon emissions and other pollutants. But there are still concerns about planet-warming methane leaks.

6) Wind power has also seen rapid growth over the past decade. And the White House wants it to continue: "President Obama has set a goal of once again doubling generation from wind, solar, and geothermal sources by 2020, and has called on Congress to make the renewable energy Production Tax Credit permanent and refundable."

7) The United States is getting more efficient in using energy, but it's not quite as efficient as Germany or Japan. The White House argues that the latter two countries have stricter building codes and fuel-efficiency standards, as well as denser development.

So that's the basic situation, although there's much, much more detail in the report. Here's how the White House sums things up:

The scientific consensus is that the anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases is causing climate change. The results can be seen already in higher temperatures and extreme weather, and these are but precursors of what lies ahead. Although greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are global problems, the United States is in a unique position to tackle these challenges and to provide global leadership.

The Nation has made substantial progress toward the Administration’s ambitious short-term Copenhagen targets for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, but much difficult work lies ahead. Undertaking this work, which reflects the Administration’s commitment to future generations, entails many policy steps that are economically justified by the negative externalities imposed by greenhouse gas emissions.

Policies to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases include market-based policies; encouraging energy efficiency; direct regulation; encouraging fuel switching to reduced-emissions fuels; and supporting the development and widespread adoption of zero-emissions energy sources such as wind and solar. And, as the country reduces emissions along this path, it also needs to prepare for the climate change that is occurring and will continue to occur.

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Dylan Matthews · March 15, 2013