Climate Change Politics: A Landscape Transformed

CLIMATE CHANGE POLITICS: A LANDSCAPE TRANSFORMED

SPEECH BY EILEEN CLAUSSEN, PRESIDENT, PEW CENTER ON GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE

XERISCAPE COUNCIL OF NEW MEXICO, MARCH 9, 2007
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

 

It is wonderful to be here in Albuquerque.   I am honored to be a part of this conference, and to kick off Session III of these proceedings.  

And what a journey you have been on.  Your agenda shows that you have moved from the Desert Dryland of Session I through the Middle Ground of Session II . . . and today you have reached Session III:    Oasis.   I am just glad this Convention Center has ample parking for all of your camels. 

Your journey reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon.   It shows a caravan in the desert with the camels piled high.  A child in the group asks his mother the age-old question: “Are we there yet?”  And the irritated mother replies: “Of course not, we’re nomads!”

So let me begin by paying   tribute to the Xeriscape Council of New Mexico for bringing all of us—all of you—together.  The Council understands that, when it comes to issues of how we use water and how we interact with the natural environment, we simply cannot continue blindly on our current course.  We cannot keep treating the environment as an instrument for meeting our every whim and need.  Or, at least, we cannot do this and expect our actions not to have repercussions, some of them quite severe.

I am here this morning, of course, to talk about climate change.   And, given the Council’s interest in water issues, I want to talk a little bit about the relationship between climate change and water supplies. But, mostly, I want to talk about politics.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Oh, great. Someone is here from Washington to talk about politics. As if we don’t get enough politics in the news already.

But what I want to talk about is the politics of climate change—and how the political landscape in this country is changing in favor of stronger action to protect the climate. And it is changing for the same reason that events such as this conference are attracting more and more participants. Because people recognize that we have some very serious environmental problems on our hands—and because people see that there are solutions.

Of course, I am talking about people like you. And I am also talking about people like New Mexico’s governor, Bill Richardson.

Just last week, as I am sure you know, Governor Richardson joined with the chief executives of four other western states in a bold agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change. I’ll talk more about this later, but for now I merely want to alert you to the fact that solutions to climate change are sprouting up right here in your own backyard. New Mexico and its neighbors, in fact, are at the vanguard in showcasing the new politics of climate change that I want to talk about today.

But let me start with a few words about water. Earlier this year, a United Nations panel called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a highly anticipated report on the current science of climate change.  This report represents the combined efforts of hundreds of top scientists from around the world. And it received a great deal of attention in the media—chiefly, for confirming once and for all that sea level and global temperatures both increased at an accelerating pace during the 20th century.

Also newsworthy was the fact that the IPCC expressed a much higher level of confidence than in past reports (a greater than 90-percent certainty, in fact) that the changes we are seeing are the result of human actions. The primary culprit, of course, is emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels.

But there was other news in the IPCC report as well—and a lot of it had to do with water. For example, the report confirmed that mountain glaciers and snow cover have declined on average in both the northern and southern hemispheres. It also found that more intense and longer droughts have been observed over wider areas since the 1970s, particularly in the tropics and subtropics.

And that just covers what has happened to date. The IPCC also issued projections for the decades ahead. And, again, the news is not good. Global temperatures, according to the report, will rise by 3.2 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, and sea levels will rise one-half to two feet. In addition, there is a 90-percent or greater chance that the world will see more hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation events. And it is likely that we will see more droughts as well.

There it is: the dreaded D-word. The likelihood of more droughts is an obvious concern for people across the Southwest. The American Meteorological Society held a briefing on the IPCC report the other week in Washington, and Dr. Richard Seager of Columbia University made some very sobering points.

He said the report essentially confirms that the southwestern United States began a transition to a drier climate at the end of the 20th century, and that a new, drier climate is, in fact, well established as the 21st century gets under way. According to state-of-the-art models, conditions approximating a perpetual 1950s-style drought are likely to become the new climate of the Southwest in the decades to come.

In other words: If you want to keep a garden in New Mexico, and if you’re not into xeriscaping now, there is a 90-percent or greater chance you will be soon. There is no doubt about it: the changing climate will have serious implications for the Southwest. It will affect development, the allocation of water resources, cross-border relations with Mexico, everything.

And that’s just the forecast for the Southwest. Looking more broadly, the most recent IPCC report confirms beyond any reasonable doubt that climate change is a real problem, that it is caused in large part by human activity, and that it will accelerate in the years to come. If there is any silver lining in the contents of this report, it is this: the IPCC has provided the latest in a long line of scientific studies and pronouncements that have helped to change the political landscape on this issue in favor of solutions. And that is what I would like to talk about during the remainder of my remarks.

In his January State of the Union address, President Bush called global climate change a “serious challenge.” And, while his answers to the challenge fall far short of doing what’s needed, it is a remarkable rhetorical (and political) u-turn for this White House to even acknowledge that this is a challenge, let alone a serious one.

The reason for the u-turn can be found in part, as I said, in the increasing scientific certainty about climate change. Every month, it seems, the scientific case for action has become stronger—to the point that no responsible, thinking person can any longer deny that this is a real problem.

But science is not the only force that has compelled this White House and others to see that it is in their political interest to go public with their concern about this challenge. Equally important, I believe, is the fact that this Administration has become politically isolated on this issue, as governors and congressional leaders have stepped up and not only acknowledged the challenge but tried to shape real solutions.

The announcement last week by the five Western governors is a perfect example of this. People are not happy about the lack of leadership on this issue from Washington, and they’re setting out to fill the void.

Under the western governors’ agreement, New Mexico would join with Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington to set a regional target for greenhouse gas emissions.  And, by August 2008, the states will establish a market-based system to enable companies and industries to meet the target as cost-effectively as possible.  These five states combined emit more carbon dioxide than Canada, while accounting for more than 11 percent of total U.S. emissions.  So this is a significant achievement. 

New Mexico also is one of 12 U.S. states that have adopted their own statewide targets for capping and, ultimately, reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.  And New Mexico’s are among the most ambitious targets out there--emissions will reach 2000 levels by 2012, they will be 10 percent below 2000 levels by 2020, and 75 percent below 2000 levels by 2050.  

In December, Governor Richardson signed an executive order to help the state reach its targets.   Among the steps he approved were the creation of a greenhouse gas registry, advances in technology to capture and store carbon emissions from power plants, and the promotion of renewable fuels.

New Mexico is the first major coal, oil and gas-producing state to set targets like these.  New Mexico also is working with its neighbors in Arizona on a plan called the Southwest Climate Change Initiative.  The goal: to pursue collaborative opportunities to reduce emissions.

The residents of this state deserve to be proud of all of the forward-looking things that are happening right here to address climate change.   But New Mexico is not alone among the states.  Over the past several years, lawmakers from coast to coast have been embracing new programs and policies to reduce their states’ greenhouse gas emissions. 

California, like New Mexico, established an ambitious greenhouse gas emissions target—and California has gone the next step and passed legislation, with real enforcement, to give the targets the force of law.  California also has taken steps to begin regulating carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks (a policy that 10 other states are poised to follow if it survives a legal challenge from the automakers).  If the courts uphold it, California’s new standard for vehicles will reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions in the state by 30 million tons by 2020.

Many, many states are taking steps to rein in their emissions.   For example, 22 states, including large emitters like Texas and California, have required that electric utilities generate a specified amount of electricity from renewable sources.  Twenty-eight states have climate action plans.

And other states are working across their borders in the same spirit as New Mexico and its western neighbors.   Seven Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states have signed their own regional initiative.  Known as RGGI, it is aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in the region. 

Now, you might think that one state’s actions could not possibly affect a global problem like climate change. But if you combine the RGGI states with the five western states that are taking collaborative action, that’s 22 percent of U.S. emissions that could soon be subject to emission targets under a market-based system.  If all of these states were a single country, they would be the fourth largest emitting nation in the world.  And consider this:   California’s emissions exceed those of Brazil.   Texas comes out ahead of Canada, the UK and Mexico.    And Illinois produces more CO2 than the Netherlands.

States are a significant part of the climate problem, and many of them are showing they can be a significant part of the solution as well. 

The states also are showing that it is politically possible to take action on this issue.    In November, Governor Richardson was reelected to office with the support of 69 percent of New Mexico voters.  It was the largest margin of victory for any governor in the history of the state.  Think his support for serious action on climate change hurt him at the polls?  Doesn’t look like it. 

The same goes for California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Polls have confirmed that his strong support for climate action helped him enormously with California voters in the 2006 election.  The governor won the election with a strong 56-percent majority of the vote, vs. 39 percent for his Democratic opponent.  

So, yes, the politics of climate change are different today.  And it is not only because state leaders are stepping up and advancing solutions to the problem.  Business leaders, too, have gotten into the act—making the case that it is possible to protect the climate while also protecting—and, in many cases, advancing—our goals for economic growth. 

At the Pew  Center, we work with a council of leading businesses that are committed to protecting the climate.   Our Business Environmental Leadership Council began with 13 companies; it now includes more than 40 companies representing more than 3 million employees and with a combined market value of over $2.4 trillion.  Members include a who’s who of U.S. corporate leadership, from Alcoa and GE to IBM and Intel,  and many more. What are these companies doing to protect the climate?  Here are a couple of examples:   Over the last 20 years, Alcoa has reduced the electricity required to produce a ton of aluminum by 7.5 percent.  Another Council member, IBM, has instituted energy conservation measures that resulted in a savings of 12.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity between 1990 and 2002.  The resulting reduction in carbon dioxide emissions: 7.8 million tons.    And the resulting savings to the company’s bottom line: $729 million in reduced energy costs.

We can’t cut emissions?   These companies don’t think so.  And they’re showing it’s possible to do so in ways that do not compromise economic growth. 

For many if not all of these companies, addressing climate change is about both opportunity and risk.   Many business leaders see real risks to their operations from climate change.   According to the global insurance giant, Allianz, climate change already is increasing the potential for property damage at a rate of between 2 and 4 percent every year.  Tourism, agriculture, insurance, finance … all of these industries (and more) face serious and compelling risks.  And consider the risks for electric utilities and other businesses that do nothing to address this issue now—and then are forced to play a costly game of catch-up down the road as governments finally (and inevitably) get serious about reducing emissions.

On the other hand, there are also many obvious opportunities tied to developing and deploying new and emerging low-carbon technologies.  GE, for example, has committed to doubling its investment in environmental technologies to $1.5 billion by 2010.   That is the equivalent of starting a new Fortune 250 company focused exclusively on clean technology.

Ten years ago, corporate America was a reliable ally for those opposed to any kind of serious action to address climate change.  Well, that’s just not the case any more.  And, in fact, many of the companies we work with are combining independent, voluntary action to reduce their emissions and develop climate-friendly technologies with high-profile public support for new policies to protect the climate.

Just last month, several of the businesses on our Council joined with the Pew  Center and others in a high-profile appeal for U.S. government action to address climate change.  The group is known as the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, and this wasn’t just a blanket call for government to do something.  Rather, the USCAP group issued a specific proposal with specific targets and timetables—a real plan of action to slow, stop and reverse U.S. emissions.

Among the companies that were part of this unique call-to-action was Albuquerque’s own PNM Resources.   PNM, of course, is the energy holding company whose utility and energy subsidiaries provide power to 941,000 homes and business in New Mexico and Texas.

Now, think for a moment about how an announcement like this changes the political landscape on this issue.   When Fortune 500 CEOs take a stand for policies that in the past were tagged by private sector leaders as extreme or unwarranted, and worse, it moves the politics to a new place.   Like the state leaders who have come out in favor of strong and effective policies, the business leaders we’re working with are sending a clear message to Washington, and the message is this:   We must act to address this issue now, and we can do it without putting our economy at risk.

And Washington, finally, is beginning to listen.    Beyond the President’s rhetorical bows to climate change, our nation’s elected leaders are laying the groundwork for substantive action on this issue in the months and years ahead.    In 2005, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan measure calling for a national, mandatory, market-based program to slow, stop and, ultimately, reverse the growth in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.  Although the measure was nonbinding, it marked the first time the Senate has gone on record to support mandatory action on this issue. 

And now, there is a new Congress in place with leaders who are strong supporters of climate action.   The change at the top of the U.S. Senate committee with jurisdiction over climate change is a case in point.  Gone as chairman is Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who infamously referred to climate change as a quote-unquote “great hoax.” Replacing him is Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who could not pose more of a contrast as author of one of the most aggressive climate bills yet introduced in Congress.

In addition to Senator Boxer at the head of the Environment and Public Works Committee, we now have a Senate Majority Leader and a Speaker of the House who consistently have supported mandatory climate action.  And we have leaders of other key committees on both sides of Capitol Hill who have expressed their support for action.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled her intention to have the House pass a climate bill by July 4.  And the biggest political development of the year on this issue may be that Congressman John Dingell of Detroit now agrees that it’s time to act. 

As chairman of the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Congressman Dingell has long been considered an obstacle to serious action on climate change.  But now he is saying that his committee will report a bill by early June.  And his support for action, I believe, is very likely to bring in other Democrats who have been less than enthusiastic, and more Republicans too. 

What all of these developments point to, if all the stars align, is a so-called “cap-and-trade” bill emerging from Congress, potentially before the 2008 elections.  In the Senate alone, there are currently five bills proposing some form of cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions

Cap-and-trade, as most of you know, is a policy that requires emissions reductions while allowing companies to trade emission credits.   The most important benefit of this approach: it establishes a value for emissions reductions, as well as an economic advantage for technologies that can achieve them. 

The cap-and-trade model already has proven successful in this country in reducing emissions of the pollutants that cause acid rain.  We know it can work.  Cap-and-trade, in fact, is how California intends to achieve its emission targets.  It is also the basis for the multi-state plans I mentioned here in the West and back East as well. 

So there is, in fact, a great deal of movement on this issue in Washington.   And there is additional pressure for solutions due to the upcoming 2008 Presidential contest.  (Well, I suppose you can’t call it an “upcoming” contest anymore—sadly for all of us, it is already well under way). 

In any case, on the Democratic side you have a number of candidates who have pledged to make climate change an important part of their platforms.  And, among the Republicans there is U.S. Senator John McCain, who co-wrote the first cap-and-trade bill in the U.S. Congress way back in 2003.  Conveniently, his measure currently is co-sponsored by two colleagues named Obama and Clinton (meaning we could see at least one point of agreement during the 2008 presidential debates). 

Given the support for climate action among these high-profile contenders for President, I believe that the words “cap and trade” will become an important part of the political dialogue in this country in the lead-up to the 2008 election.  And I also believe that, given the changed politics on this issue, it is plausible that the United States could have this kind of mandatory policy in place by 2008, and it’s likely we will have such a policy by 2010. 

But implementing a cap-and-trade policy, while critical, is not all we need to do.  We need a wider range of policies.  We need to invest in research to develop some of the most critical, long-term, climate-friendly technologies.  And we need policies to ensure that technologies that reduce emissions can gain a solid foothold in the marketplace. 

And then there are policies aimed at specific sectors of the economy.   For example, governments around the world have adopted more stringent policies than the United States to reduce tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions and/or increase the fuel economy of cars and trucks.     Even China has higher standards than we do.  If all of these countries are doing this and we aren’t, that says to me that it’s possible—that, despite the automobile companies’ resistance, technologies exist to reduce emissions from this sector.  And by adopting tougher but reasonable standards, we can hasten the rollout of cost-effective, commercially available technology to reduce vehicle emissions.       

It is also going to take international policies.   This, too, is not in question.  Climate change is a global problem requiring global action.  Even if we were to get smarter about reducing the United States’ contribution to climate change, global energy use will continue to surge and climate change will remain a significant threat.  We cannot protect the climate without a global framework that enlists all countries to do their part to reduce emissions, and that provides poorer countries with the support they need to do so.

And, in fact, a number of countries around the world already are taking action on this issue, which is another factor that has changed the political landscape here in the United States.   The European Union, for example, has adopted its own emissions trading scheme.  And countries like the United Kingdom have embraced ambitious goals for reducing their emissions and developing low-carbon energy sources. 

While all of these other countries are moving forward, however cautiously, and trying to figure out how to reduce their emissions, the United States until now has remained largely on the sidelines.   And we have remained on the sidelines despite the enormous risks that climate change poses for our economy—and the enormous economic opportunities as well.  

As both the risks and the opportunities become clearer to U.S. leaders, the political landscape will continue to change.  And we will see our country come around, once and for all, and embrace real action to protect the climate—and to ensure that our water supplies and other resources are protected as well.

And, by real action, I am talking about more than a prevention-only approach.  Although reducing greenhouse gas emissions is critical to limiting the ultimate damage caused by climate change, it is clear that we must also adapt to what is already here and coming in the near future. The latest IPCC report tells us that, even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, the average temperature of the earth would continue to rise significantly for decades to come, precipitation patterns would continue to change, and sea level would continue to rise for hundreds of years because of the inertia in the climate system.   Obviously, we will not stop emitting greenhouse gases today, so the changes to come will be significant.  We are going to have to adapt.

By reducing your water demand, you—the xeriscape community—are in the vanguard of the grassroots adaptation movement.    But in the same way that voluntary action alone is not enough to prevent the worst effects of climate change, voluntary action alone will not ensure we can adapt.  There is an essential role for government and public policy, including lots of planning at the local and state levels for droughts, storms, water shortages, extreme heat and other consequences.  Water supplies, storm drainage, peak power capacity, emergency care and relief systems, evacuation planning—all of these and more will have to be enhanced.

There will be large costs associated with adaptation but there will be no choice, as the alternative is simply to suffer.    Fortunately, we do have an opportunity, through aggressive mitigation, to minimize both the ultimate costs of adaptation and the amount of human suffering that our children and grandchildren will have to endure in the future. Every dollar spent avoiding climate change will save more dollars spent later on adapting to and repairing the damage.

Looking forward, the challenge of reaching agreement on effective national climate policies is not all that different from the challenges you face as gardeners.   We need to prepare the soil by making our opinions known.  We need to turn all of these buds and shoots I have talked about into healthy, thriving plants.  And we need to pay close attention to issues of design—how we design policies to work together in the most effective ways. 

In closing, I will go back to the question posed by the child in the caravan of camels: “Are we there yet?”   And the answer is, we are certainly not.  But unlike the nomads in the cartoon, we at least have a clear destination.    We just need to get going.  

Thank you very much.