Blog Post

Five Climate Guideposts for the Next Administration

Nov 4, 2016 | David J. Hayes

President Obama has established important baseline policies that address key aspects of climate change. As we see more and more evidence of climate change and appreciate the urgency of the issue, however, it is becoming clear that the next president will need to devote additional attention to all aspects of this particular challenge. Our nation can no longer put off actuating more aggressive climate change response actions that will appropriately reduce emissions levels while preparing us for the changes that already are occurring. To accomplish this task, the next president will need to marry sound policy initiatives with effective governance approaches that extend horizontally across multiple federal agencies, vertically across scores of federal, state, tribal, and local governments, and outwardly to the business and academic communities, NGOs, and key international players.

On September 15, Stanford colleagues and I participated in the conference Policy Forum: New US Leadership, Next Steps on Climate Change in Washington, DC, that brought together leading scientists from Stanford University with former high-level government officials and members of the business community to discuss the policies and measures that the next president might employ to adequately tackle the climate change challenge. The event was the culmination of a Climate Change Implementation Project that included several roundtable discussions and another major day-long event on the Stanford campus. The project has explored a wide variety of issues that cannot be given justice in a short blog post—from the future of the Clean Power Plan and methane controls to the global health implications of climate change and both domestic and international clean energy financing needs. Five key takeaways and recommendations from these discussions are highlighted here:

  1. Climate change is accelerating, we need to act now, with urgency;
  2. Scaling up clean energy technology will be critical;  the private sector as well as universities and local, state, and federal government need to be involved;    
  3. Don’t let our infrastructure crisis go to waste—we need to make climate smart infrastructure investments;
  4. Land use changes must be integrated into our climate agenda—land use is a major emissions source, a major carbon sequestration opportunity, and a key venue for clean energy siting and climate adaptation decisionmaking;
  5. Climate change presents a “whole of government” challenge—leadership and organization of the White House and the federal government agencies must be given serious attention.

Climate Change is Accelerating

In examining how recent climate data and policy developments square with analyses included in the last comprehensive Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change report (issued in 2013 and 2014), we see that changes are happening on the ground far faster and at greater magnitudes than predicted. A Stanford analysis presented at the September 15 event points to studies and data that debunk the notion that there has been a warming pause or slowdown, confirm that recent warming has been rapid, note that climate change has made extremes substantially more likely, project a higher maximum sea-level rise during the twenty-first century, and indicate that global economies may be more sensitive to warming than previously estimated. But, on a more positive note, the analysis also notes that in both 2014 and 2015, global carbon emissions barely grew or even decreased, despite modest economic growth, demonstrating the initial stages of disconnecting emissions and economic activity.

Scaling Up Clean Energy Technology Is Critical

The public and private sectors have important roles to play in accelerating the development and deployment of clean energy technologies. Companies should look to invest jointly with national laboratories and academic research institutions, potentially in a Sematech-type collaboration. Smart, cooperative investment is needed in research, development, and deployment activities, with an eye toward deploying new, clean energy technologies at commercially meaningful scales. When companies put “skin in the game” and work collaboratively with national labs and others, innovations are more likely to find scalable market opportunities.

In a similar vein, launching a “Clean Energy Challenge” would incentivize states and local industries and universities to create a productive ecosystem for developing clean energy and the jobs that go with it. The challenge would competitively award federal funds to states that are committing to exceed minimum clean energy requirements by taking additional steps that might include, for example, providing technology transfer and incubation opportunities.     

Infrastructure Investment

The next president has an opportunity to address climate when pursuing needed investments in new infrastructure. Smart infrastructure investments can have substantial indirect climate benefits in the transportation sector by debottlenecking freight movement on roads, rails, and ports, providing mass transit and other efficient transportation options. In the water sector, upgrades should seek to reduce the energy intensity of water treatment and conveyance infrastructure.

Spending on infrastructure projects should follow private sector practices and be subjected to a climate risk measurement and management screen. Potential physical risks associated with sea level rise and storm surge, for example, should be addressed as a condition of receiving public funds. Associated climate impacts also should be considered, including the carbon intensity of infrastructure projects Rather than relying on energy-intensive steel and concrete building materials, for example, builders should be incentivized to build low-carbon infrastructure using materials that might include reinforced wood products as well as solidified, sequestered carbon and recycled steel.

Land Use

Land use also demands priority attention because 25 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions are directly caused by poor land use practices, including the ongoing destruction of forests. Some progress has been made in reducing the rate of deforestation, but smart forest protection strategies—including cross-border forestry investments—can generate significant, additional emissions reductions. Making wise land management investments in natural and working landscapes also has the potential to yield significant positive carbon benefits by increasing the productivity of forests, rangelands, wetlands, and other carbon sinks.

In addition, the pivot to a clean energy economy depends on governments making sound, timely land use decisions to site and build new clean energy generation and transmission infrastructure. Land use issues also are front and center when it comes to climate impacts. Sea level rise and storm surge already are impacting coastal infrastructure and resources. Increased droughts, floods, wildfires and other climate change–related impacts on our landscapes are challenging cities and rural areas alike. Thoughtful land stewardship can blunt some of these impacts and make our lands and waters more resilient in the face of climate change.

Specific actions that the next president can take to actuate a land use and climate agenda include providing decisionmakers at all levels of government and civil society with easily accessible tools to measure and share information about climate benefits and risks associated with local land types. Also, a high-level office should address land use adaptation and resilience issues by providing accessible mapping information that provides detailed, science-based information about existing and projected regional climate impacts on land and water resources, and a web-based clearinghouse that shares information about local, regional, and national adaptation and resilience investments and strategies.

Effective Government Organization

One of the key governance questions is how to best deploy the cabinet agencies to implement a comprehensive climate agenda. The White House works best when it develops policy initiatives on behalf of the president. It was the White House, for example, that brought together the many White House and cabinet offices needed to develop President Obama’s climate blueprint. And it was the White House that made the final calls on key policy choices.

When it comes to implementing policy initiatives, however, the agencies—not the White House—are best positioned to take the lead, since they have the budget, staff, jurisdiction, and know-how to convert policy pronouncements into on-the-ground realities. The White House still has an important role to assist agencies in implementing climate policy, including by providing high-level support, budget assistance, and cross-agency and intergovernmental coordination.

Unique challenges presented by the climate agenda also may require the White House and cabinet to explore new mechanisms to exploit their relative strengths. In particular, a strong White House voice, backed by strong agency leadership, will be needed to avoid parallel but inconsistent agency approaches to shared challenges associated with deploying clean energy, responding to climate impacts, addressing infrastructure needs, and the like.  

The development of shared service centers, for example, is one option that has significant upside potential in the climate arena. Rather than having each of the major agencies develop their own mapping services that depict current and projected climate impacts on resources and infrastructure, for example, a consolidated mapping service should be developed. Similarly, the federal government is well situated to develop clearinghouse services that can provide data and case studies that will assist local and regional leaders who are grappling with climate impacts.

Finally, the White House should be organized internally in such a way that policy and a coordination function are consolidated at a high level, close to the president, and inclusive of all major aspects of the climate challenge, including environmental, energy, financial, and climate impact issues and the like.


The body of work produced by the Stanford Climate Implementation Project provides the next president’s climate team with important observations and recommendations that deserve serious attention.

We urge interested parties to consult the key conference summaries, papers, and videos that are available online for a more in-depth discussion of these, and other, important substantive and governance issues associated with our nation’s climate change challenge.

The views expressed in RFF blog posts are those of the authors and should not be attributed to Resources for the Future.