“For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”  When I heard President Obama speak these words during his State of the Union address, I didn’t think of melting polar ice caps, or frustratingly slow progress at international conferences at Kyoto and Dohar, or even Hurricane Sandy.  I thought of air travel, and a bill that President Obama signed last year that undermines his rhetoric.

The bill, signed into law by President Obama on November 27th, prohibits US air carriers from complying with a European law that incentivizes them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. If your eyes weren’t peeled to the news in November, you may have missed this bill, but now is the time to pay attention to it again.  The process of Senate confirmation to fill Obama’s second term cabinet is ongoing and the fate of the bill hangs in the balance. 01-_jsl8767

The bill is an overwrought response to the European Union’s trading program for aviation emissions, a sensible, market-based policy implemented last January to control aircraft emissions as the industry expands.  It’s an important check on pollution from a global industry that now adds as much carbon to our atmosphere as the entire population of Germany.

Carriers operating in European airspace are essentially obligated to maintain current levels of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions through 2020.  Airlines which reduce their emissions by upgrading their fleet, modifying routes, and improving flight occupancy will pay no fee.  They can pass on fuel savings to consumers, and even sell their emissions allocation for a profit.  Carriers that fail to reduce emissions to match the growth in their services will have to purchase excess allowances in an emissions market.

Proponents of the U.S. bill say that the European measure violates our nation’s sovereignty.  By requiring US corporations to comply with the emissions regulation, they say, U.S. citizens are being forced to pay a foreign “tax.” The bill was supported by a bevy of airline industry groups and sponsored by one of their top recipients of campaign donations, Senator John Thune (R-SD).

It’s true that the cost of compliance, about $15 for a ticket between New York and London, may be passed on to consumers.  But this cost is trivial in comparison to the more than $200 in existing taxes and fees levied on this route.  The US itself charges several fees to foreign passengers, including international departure and arrival taxes, an immigration user fee, and a passenger security fee.

If airlines do not comply with this levy, they will be subjected to more than $20 billion in fines from the EU between now and 2020.  Congress has not sufficiently anticipated this messy legal eventuality, and only claims, in an amendment to the bill, that “taxpayer dollars” will not be used to pay these European penalties.  If airlines suffer these fines, they will inevitably pass the cost to consumers.

Passing this bill is disturbing since it demonstrates that Congress is  unwilling to make even the most moderate steps toward controlling the growth of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and sets a precedent against any measure calling for industry to bear the costs its activities have on our climate.

However, the Administration is not shackled by this new law.  It simply grants the  Secretary of Transportation the power to direct airlines to comply with the EU regulation or disobey it.  On Tuesday, former Charlotte mayor Anthonny Foxx was sworn in to succeed Ray LaHood as Secretary of Transportation.  Foxx should exercise the privilege granted to the Secretary by the bill to direct airlines to comply with the European regulations.

President Obama has claimed a role of “international leadership” on combating climate change and has recently pledged executive action.  To be consistent in his positions, President Obama and his Administration should direct American air carriers to comply with the environmentally-conscious laws of our allies.  Furthermore, the Administration should work with the European Union to establish international agreements to supplement Europe’s Directive at the upcoming assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization in September.  This action would open the door for future domestic and global measures to combat climate change and form the basis of his legacy for his second term.

Nathan Sanders is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University.