From Dark to Light: Navigating the U.S. Energy-Climate Terrain

Keynote Address By Eileen Claussen, President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change
Institute of International and European Affairs
Dublin, Ireland
June 14, 2011

Watch the full speech

Thank you very much.  It is a pleasure to be here. I am especially pleased to be in Ireland just a couple of weeks after President Barack Obama paid a visit to his ancestral home of Moneygall.  I thought you would be interested to know that some of the President’s opponents, following the recent controversy about whether or not he was truly born in America, demanded proof of Mr. Obama’s Irish ancestry … and I understand he responded by finishing his Guinness and reminding his opponents that he is the only president to host a Beer Summit at the White House.

In all seriousness, I want to thank the Institute of International and European Affairs for inviting me to this beautiful city to talk with all of you about what’s happening in the United States to address the issue of climate change.

(Pause.)

Well, that about sums it up.  It has been a pleasure speaking with you and, if you will pardon me, I will now get along with my sightseeing.

I am kidding, of course. Well, let me clarify that. I am kidding about being through with my remarks, but the notion that not a lot is happening on this issue in the United States is no joke.  The renowned Irish blessing calls for the winds to be always at your back; the sun to shine warm upon your face; and rains to fall soft upon your fields. Well, for those of us who care about this issue and who want to see the United States take its rightful role in protecting the climate, it seems like the wind has not actually been at our back – but rather hitting us squarely in the face for quite some time now.

Any time you have someone winning an election to the United States Senate, as we did in November, thanks in part to a campaign ad where he uses a rifle to shoot a hole through a piece of paper representing climate change legislation, I guess you could be forgiven for feeling, well, not sufficiently blessed.

For perspective, let’s look back for a moment at what was happening on this issue in the United States just two years ago.  President Obama was just months into office after an election campaign during which he had pledged to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases by 80 percent before mid-century, and during which he promised to invest tens of billions of dollars in new climate-friendly energy technologies. 

As his secretary of energy, the President appointed a Nobel Prize winner who supported strong action to address climate change. And he built an all-star team of advisers on environment and energy issues who felt the same way.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives, just two years ago this month, passed comprehensive climate change legislation that established national limits on U.S. emissions and that authorized a new trading program to help industries meet their targets as efficiently as possible.

It was indeed a heady time for those of us who have labored on this issue over the past two decades and more.  We definitely felt as though we had the wind at our back.  But now it all seems like a distant dream … there is no getting around the fact that 2010 was a dark time for those of us who believed that the United States was on the precipice of taking serious action. 

So today, I will spend my time talking with you about why I believe things have changed so dramatically in so short a time.  But I also want to point to some signs of hope. William Butler Yeats once wrote, “When one looks into the darkness there is always something there.” And I believe this is an insight we should remember, no matter how dark things may appear to be at the present time.

John McCain joked once in a different context that it’s always darkest before the light goes completely out. (Pause.) Which is very funny – but also somewhat depressing.  In my remarks today, I intend to look into the present darkness and reflect on some of the reasons why things are so dark right now.  But I also will point out that indeed, there is “something there.”

Let us start with a closer look at why it has grown so gloomy (for some) in Washington.  In the two years since the House of Representatives voted on the so-called “cap-and-trade” legislation in June 2009, the opposition to climate action has gained the upper hand in the debate.  The 2010 U.S. elections last November brought an astonishing number of new members to Congress who publicly disavowed the science of climate change. In fact, shortly after the election, a U.S. think tank conducted a comprehensive review of the policy positions and statements of more than 100 incoming Republican members of Congress. It found that more than half of them — I repeat: more than half —are skeptics of climate change. They say they are not sure it’s really happening.  Remember: This is in the majority party that controls the legislative agenda in the U.S. House of Representatives.

So if anyone tells you that serious congressional action on this issue is possible in the next two years, I hope you will politely tell them they’re crazy.  It’s not going to happen. 

And it is not just the presence of a large number of climate skeptics that make it improbable that the current U.S. Congress will do anything.  As always in Washington, there are a range of other issues and other interests at play.  In the wake of President Obama’s effort to overhaul the U.S. health care system, for example, there is a pronounced distaste in our nation’s capital and throughout the United States for policies that could be branded as quote-unquote “big government” solutions.

We can do our level best to try and help people understand how a cap-and-trade approach leaves it to the market (and not government) to find the most efficient ways to reduce emissions, but opponents inevitably will turn this into an issue of government overreach.  And in the current political climate in the United States, attacking things in this manner is a strategy that seems to work.

There is also of course the economy – a seemingly unending challenge with which I know all of you are familiar. You understand how unemployment rates can color every political decision.  In the U.S., unemployment hovers at or near the 9 percent mark, causing members of Congress to feel their own jobs are at risk to the extent that they embrace policies that could be construed as being anti-business or, worse, “anti-jobs.”  The President’s health care law regularly is referred to as a quote-unquote “job killing,” “job destroying” or “job crushing” initiative. This is how you attack your opponents in Washington today. You accuse them of wanting to take away people’s jobs. And, once again, this is a strategy that seems to work, even if it can be argued that addressing climate change in a serious way will actually create new jobs in clean energy and related industries. 

Unfortunately, it gets even worse.  Not content merely to block legislation that could strengthen or expand U.S. efforts to address climate change, many in the House of Representatives are pursuing a strategy of trying to eliminate or curtail existing policies and programs related to this issue, however modest they may be. 

Earlier this year, the House passed a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. Ironically, this measure could have been nicknamed the “Kill Government” bill for its drastic cutbacks. While fiscal realities demand cuts to a wide range of vital federal programs, the House plan disproportionately cut funding for the climate science and clean energy programs needed to transition to the robust clean-energy economy that many businesses and the public support.

Thankfully, the U.S. Senate had its say, and the spending bill the President eventually signed into law avoided total annihilation of federal climate initiatives. While the most aggressive efforts by Congress to strip the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of its funding and authority to act on climate and clean energy may not have passed, many politically-contentious issues lie ahead that may present more hurdles for EPA. For instance, debates this summer over the U.S. debt ceiling and battles over the 2012 budget could again put EPA in the crosshairs. Many Republicans, especially in the House, are likely to stay vigilant in their anti-climate efforts.

But under our bicameral legislative system, the House does not have the last word in these matters.  The Senate, however, presents its own challenges, starting with an arcane set of rules that allows a minority of senators to block major legislation. The Democrats are in the majority in the Senate, but they don’t have the 60 votes they need to pass anything major on climate change or other big issues.  What’s more, the Democrats themselves remain divided on the climate issue, with senators from oil- and coal-producing states often siding with Republicans to block proposals that could be portrayed as trying to change the prevailing, high-carbon energy mix in the United States. 

Looking ahead, things could get worse before they get better.  The period after the November 2012 elections could be the next best chance for the United States to do something serious on the climate issue. But if the House remains majority Republican, or the Senate falls into Republican hands, the chance will probably be lost for another two years or more.

So, it’s a little dark in Washington at the moment and it is hard to see how anything substantive or serious can happen on the climate issue under the current Congress. Indeed, the challenge right now is to prevent Congress from endangering the mostly modest initiatives and programs that are in place right now to address this issue, and on which we can potentially build a more robust response in the future under friendlier leadership.

Which brings me to the shadows of hope we can see if we follow the advice of Mr. Yeats and look into the darkness. The first of these appears when we look at what’s happening at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the federal agency that is responsible for carrying out many U.S. laws related to climate change and the environment. 

With Congress unable to pass comprehensive climate legislation in 2010, attention turned to what the EPA might be able to do under the agency’s existing authority. And it turns out the EPA can do a great deal.  One of the reasons why it can do a great deal is because the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 decided that greenhouse gases meet the definition of pollutants under the Clean Air Act.  This is the omnibus federal clean air law that was originally passed in the 1970s and has been amended and expanded several times since.

In its 2007 ruling, the Supreme Court left it to the EPA to decide if emissions of greenhouse gases present a risk to public health and welfare. EPA decided they did, based on the overwhelming scientific evidence about the enormous risks that climate change poses to America and the world. Interestingly, we recently learned that the previous EPA Administrator under President George W. Bush came to exactly the same conclusion … and other senior Bush administration officials agreed.  So when opponents of the EPA decision on greenhouse gases inevitably painted it as a partisan attempt to expand government, well, let’s just say that their arguments seemed a tad partisan themselves.

What is the EPA doing to try and limit U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases? National standards for passenger cars and light-duty trucks that won approval from industry and environmentalists will increase fuel efficiency to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 and save consumers $3,000 over a vehicle’s lifetime. A new EPA proposal to be finalized next year aims to increase fuel efficiency by another 3 to 6 percent per year through 2025. In late October, the agency announced a sensible proposal to reduce emissions by 20 percent and improve fuel efficiency for medium and heavy-duty vehicles.  This was followed by a November announcement that will go a long way to making sure that new industrial facilities in the United States use state-of-the-art technologies to boost efficiency and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. And later this year, EPA is expected to propose the first-ever greenhouse gas standards for new and existing power plants and oil refineries.

Of course, opponents of these and other reasonable EPA actions will continue to raise a ruckus, and there have already been loud cries in Congress to take away the agency’s regulatory authority and cut its funding, as I already discussed. But the fact remains that, even though its efforts are relatively mild and will not come close to achieving the broader reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that President Obama promised during his election campaign, EPA is still in the fight and is still putting forward reasonable rules and regulations for reducing the U.S. contribution to climate change.  And that is an encouraging thing to see as we take in an otherwise dark scene. 

It is also important to take notice of action actually taking place on the ground that has climate benefits. Most notably, we expect many old coal plants to shut down. While some new coal plants will come online soon, we are far more likely to see new natural gas power plants built in the future. While not “The Answer” to our climate and energy challenges, natural gas emits half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal. So this shift to natural gas, largely driven by regulations of conventional pollutants and by discoveries of shale gas that make natural gas more cost-competitive, will certainly help keep the U.S. on the downward emissions pathway that we’ve experienced in recent years. Of course, achieving bigger, brighter changes in how we produce and consume energy will ultimately require new policies, technological innovation, and broad public support.

Another shadow of hope that we can see if we look hard into the current darkness is that President Obama continues to talk about energy issues in a way that is helpful for the climate.  Yes, he recently proposed to expand drilling for oil in the United States, but he continues to frame the nation’s energy challenge (and, indeed, the world’s) as a challenge that we can meet only through an all-of-the-above energy policy that reserves a vital role for low-carbon, clean-energy sources in meeting our energy needs in the decades to come. Obama’s rhetorical commitment to climate action was again heard in his speech before the British Parliament last month, when he grouped climate change as one of the world’s principle threats to confront along with terrorism, nuclear proliferation, famine and disease.

Looking ahead to the 2012 U.S. presidential election, we can even see a faint shadow of hope (I emphasize it’s a faint one) in the histories of the leading Republican candidates for President.  A number of the leading Republican candidates (including former state governors Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) have in the past supported cap-and-trade policies.  Of course, they wouldn’t admit it now even under enhanced interrogation techniques.

But these men who are running for President on the Republican side are not your classic climate change deniers.  In fact, some of them still agree that the science of climate change is real, although they are not supporting any real action to deal with it.  I know this does not sound like much … but the fact is that these candidates will find it hard to make climate change a polarizing issue in the 2012 election given their records and past statements on the issue – and that is a good thing. 

Of course, if former Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska or another out-and-out climate change skeptic runs for President on the Republican side, then this might change.  And I expect the well-funded, highly-influential Tea Party movement to continue to mislead the public about the science and hold up climate action as a prime example of government run amuck. But in all honesty, I am not sure that running on a climate-change-denial platform is smart politics in America today.  I am convinced from a review of the polls that the majority of the American people actually support reasonable action to develop clean energy sources and take other steps to create a low-carbon economy. 

According to various credible surveys, a majority of Americans (about 60 percent) believe global warming or climate change is happening. It is important to note, however, that these numbers have trended down in recent years in sync with the recession and with the increasing political battles over climate change policy and well-funded attacks on climate science. 

One of the more interesting public opinion surveys on this topic is the so-called “Six Americas” study by Yale and George Mason universities. The project’s researchers identified six distinct subsets of the U.S. population based on their beliefs about climate change.  The six categories are: Alarmed; Concerned; Cautious; Disengaged; Doubtful; and Dismissive.  (Add the name Grumpy and you could have the climate change version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.)

Interestingly, majorities in all six of these groups said they believe the United States should make it a priority to develop clean sources of energy.  Regulating carbon dioxide emissions was supported by a majority of each group except the Dismissive.  (Nobody asked Grumpy what he thought.)  So it’s obvious that a significant portion of the U.S. population supports policies that directly or indirectly would result in reduced emissions of greenhouse gases. 

Where support for these policies begins to decline is where researchers ask Americans what they are willing to pay to achieve these goals.  But still, public support for clean energy (and, to a lesser extent, regulating greenhouse gas emissions) is certainly a hopeful thing we can see as we look into the darkness in the United States on this issue today. And the reason why it is so hopeful is because it suggests to me that the current stalemate on this issue cannot last, especially in the face of continuing extreme weather events such as the recent flooding of the Mississippi River and Texas wildfires that have ravaged nearly 3 million acres.

These are exactly the kinds of events that climate scientists keep warning us will become more frequent in a warming world, and these types of extreme weather events inevitably raise serious questions in people’s minds about whether warming global temperatures are already wreaking havoc with the climate.  

So far, I have talked mostly about national politics in the United States, but it is important to remember that in the U.S. political system, states have an enormous degree of authority and flexibility to advance climate solutions and other policies on their own.  And the good and hopeful news is that many U.S. states have banded together in recent years to launch regional initiatives aimed at reducing emissions and developing clean energy.  This is in addition to individual states acting on their own on these issues. 

The not-so-good news is that state actions on the climate issue suffered a bit of a setback last November.  As was the case with the U.S. congressional elections, the 2010 gubernatorial elections brought to the nation’s statehouses a group of new leaders who adopted strong stands against climate action in their campaigns. This is already setting back some of the progress we were seeing at the state level on this issue in recent years.  For example, New Jersey’s new governor, Chris Christie, who is a rising star in the Republican Party, announced last month that he would withdraw his state from a very promising regional climate initiative that includes 10 northeastern U.S. states. While Gov. Christie said he accepts the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and humans play a role, he follows the standard Republican position of opposing policy action, specifically cap and trade.

But there is still hope among the states.  During the November election, for example, voters in California overwhelmingly rejected a measure aimed at curtailing the state’s nascent efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Shortly after that vote, the California Air Resources Board formally approved the state’s cap-and-trade program, which is designed to reduce California emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. A lawsuit by environmental activists opposed to cap and trade challenged the regulations on procedural grounds and may prevent the state from implementing its program on time. But the good news is California is still in the fight. And there is strong public support for what the state wants to do. California Gov. Jerry Brown also has signed into law one of the nation’s most aggressive renewable electricity standards. It requires 33 percent of the state’s electricity be produced by renewable sources by 2020.

Of course, California, as a relatively progressive state,will always provide a more hospitable climate for action on this issue. But the fact that the most highly populated U.S. state will soon be implementing a cap-and-trade system and other measures to reduce emissions has to be a positive sign.

Internationally, the Cancún climate talks showed that there are opportunities for incremental, evolutionary progress in the global negotiations on key operational issues of finance; measurement, reporting and verification; adaptation; technology; and forestry. It is important to understand that progress on these issues does not require a new legal agreement. Each of them can be advanced in tangible ways by decisions of the Parties. That is exactly what was achieved in Cancún. The Cancún Agreements are a package of decisions by the Parties. And what that package does, in large measure, is to import the essential elements of the Copenhagen Accord into the UN climate system and take initial steps to implement them.

What this represents is incremental progress – evolutionary progress – the kind of progress that had eluded us for years because we were so preoccupied with legally-binding outcomes. So we were able to move forward in Cancún on operational issues. But we were able to do so – and this is an important point – only because Parties were willing to put aside their differences on the legal issues.

I encourage the talks this year in Durban, South Africa to build on the effective, incremental approach taken in Cancún. Because the reality is that the U.S. cannot make global commitments until there is stronger consensus for action at home. And even apart from the situation in the U.S., the reality is that few if any developed countries will take on new binding commitments unless China and other emerging economies do as well. For now, we must look to coalitions of the willing to make progress in key areas, such as renewable energy and forest protection. While maintaining the international process is key to working toward the ultimate, longer-term goal of a global climate agreement with legally-binding commitments, actions taking place on the ground in individual countries right now are the most important signs of progress.

The last shadow of hope – and perhaps the most important one – that I want to talk about is the fact that there remains a strong core of business support for reasonable action on the climate issue in the United States.  The Pew Center’s Business Environmental Leadership Council includes 46 major corporations that support mandatory, market-based approaches to tackle climate change.

Starting with 13 companies in 1998, our Business Council is now the largest U.S.-based association of corporations focused on addressing the challenges of climate change and supporting mandatory climate policy. It includes mostly Fortune 500 companies with combined revenues of over $2.5 trillion and over 4.5 million employees. Many different sectors are represented, from high technology to diversified manufacturing; from oil and gas to transportation; from utilities to chemicals.

While individual companies hold their own views on policy specifics, they are united with the Pew Center in the belief that voluntary action alone will not be enough to address the climate challenge.  The bottom line: Business support for climate solutions is surely a hopeful sign amid the present darkness … and it is yet another factor that suggests to me that the current situation can’t last for long.

I would like to end my remarks by drawing your attention to something that will happen today in the United States that, at least on the surface, appears to have very little to do with the subject of my remarks.  On 42nd Street in New York City, at the Foxwoods Theater, a new rock musical based on the Spiderman comics with music and lyrics by U2’s Bono and The Edge has its official opening after several months of delays and various catastrophes along the way. 

Just months ago, many people wondered if it would ever open, given that it was way over budget and that it had gone through a number of cast changes, script rewrites and more.  The low point came when a stunt performer fell more than 20 feet to the stage after a cable snapped on the harness that held him aloft.  Fortunately, he was released from the hospital and is OK, and despite mixed reviews, ticket sales for the production have been, well, phenomenal.

I bring up the opening of the Spiderman musical because it’s a reminder that even when things are at their darkest, there can still be hope for success.  I also bring it up because of the title of the production.  It is called Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark

Yeats told us, “When one looks into the darkness there is always something there.”  And right now, as I have said, we can indeed see shadows of hope in the darkness that has descended on the climate change debate in the United States. When we will be able to turn off the dark, I cannot say.  But I believe it can happen in due time. 

Now perhaps we can turn up the lights for some questions … Thank you very much.