The State of the Climate

As President Barack Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union address, we believe it’s a good time to take a look at the state of our climate: the growing impacts of climate change, recent progress in reducing U.S. emissions, and further steps we can take to protect the climate and ourselves.

The consequences of rising emissions are serious. The U.S. average temperature has increased by about 1.5°F since 1895 with 80 percent of this increase occurring since 1980, according to the draft National Climate Assessment. Greenhouse gases could raise temperatures 2° to 4°F in most areas of the United States over the next few decades, bringing significant changes to local climates and ecosystems.

The opportunities of distributed generation

When the vast majority of Americans turn on the lights, the electricity is coming from a centralized, fossil fuel power plant.

However, there is a big change on the horizon that will alter that - distributed (also called decentralized) generation. This is when power is produced much closer to where it is used, such as with rooftop solar panels or natural gas-fired combined heat and power systems, including fuel cells and microturbines.

Currently, less than 7 percent of U.S. electricity is generated outside a centrally located power plant. Expanding distributed generation will bring exciting opportunities to increase efficiency, improve our resilience to extreme weather, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will also bring challenges for our existing grid on which we must continue to depend.

These opportunities and challenges were the focus of a discussion I participated in this week at the World Alliance for Decentralized Energy annual conference with WADE Executive Director David Sweet, Duke Energy Chairman James Rogers, and PSEG President Ralph LaRossa.

We can build on innovative power sector policies

This week's National Journal Energy Insiders discussion posed the question, "Should the United States adopt the ambitious renewable-energy and climate-change policies that California is pursuing?"

My response is that while Congress has been inactive on climate change, California and other states have been leading the way in encouraging low-carbon energy sources. Now that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is moving ahead to develop proposals to limit carbon emissions from new and existing power plants, these innovative state-level policies have the potential to be strengthened and expanded.

Climate change is a business risk

We used to talk mostly about mitigation – using policy, technology and other actions to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. But increasingly we also have started talking about resilience – making sure our public and private infrastructure can withstand the changes in the climate that we can’t avoid.

That’s because climate change is no longer a far-in-the-future possibility; it’s a right-now reality. Sea level is rising and global temperatures are higher. Climate scientists tell us to expect more frequent and intense heat waves, more severe droughts in some regions, more expansive wildfires, and more intense downpours.

Many of these changes can exacerbate the types of extreme weather that can cause costly impacts. So all of us -- individuals, communities, governments and businesses -- need to figure out how to deal with the impacts we’re already experiencing, and the ones to come.

After releasing our report, Weathering the Storm: Building Business Resilience to Climate Change, we have been talking about resilience at several forums, including Climate Week NYC and most recently at the annual conference of the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD).

Proud of what we've done, but there's still more to accomplish

When I founded a new nonprofit organization 15 years ago, the United States and the world urgently needed practical solutions to our energy and climate challenges. That need has only grown more urgent.

Earlier today, I announced my plans to step aside as the President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) once my successor is on board. As I look back, I find we have come a long way. That said, any honest assessment of our progress to date in addressing one of this century’s paramount challenges must conclude that we have much, much further to go.

When our organization, then named the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, first launched in 1998, 63 percent of the world’s electricity generation came from fossil fuels. Incredibly, that number is even higher today – 67 percent. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the main driver of climate change, is also higher than it was then – in fact, at its highest level in more than 2 million years.

Scientists around the globe have just reaffirmed with greater certainty than ever that human activity is warming the planet and threatening to irreversibly alter our climate. Climate change is no longer a future possibility. It is a here-and-now reality. It’s leading to more frequent and intense heat waves, higher sea levels, and more severe droughts, wildfires, and downpours.

We at C2ES have believed from the start that the most effective, efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and spur the innovation needed to achieve a low-carbon economy is to put a price on carbon. It’s a path that a growing number of countries, states, and even cities are taking.