Opening Keynote by Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change
State-Federal Workshop on Climate and Energy Policy: Where Do We Go From Here?
Hosted by the Pew Center and the Georgetown Climate Center
February 24, 2011
I want to welcome all of you to our 2011 workshop on state and federal climate and energy policy. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change is delighted to be working with the Georgetown Climate Center – and two of our favorite alumni in Vicki Arroyo and Kate Zyla – to present what we hope will be a very engaging and informative program over the next two days.
You know we established the Pew Center in 1998 as a nonpartisan, independent organization to provide credible information and help spur innovative solutions to climate change. For those of us who have been working on this issue for so many years now – and I am certainly not the only one in the room about whom this is true – right now could be a very discouraging time indeed. President Obama did not even utter the words “climate change” in his State of the Union address in January. In contrast, in his 2010 address he was effusive in praising the U.S. House of Representatives for passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill.
We have traveled a difficult road on this issue over the past year … a road jammed by partisan fighting over health care and the legislation on financial reform … and a road torn up by the poor state of the U.S. economy. It’s been hard to move forward in these conditions. Then in November, congressional elections brought a whole new group of climate change deniers and doubters to the halls of Congress.
Any time you have someone winning election to the Senate thanks in part to an ad where he uses a rifle to shoot a hole through cap-and-trade legislation, well … I guess you could be forgiven for feeling a little bit down and out.
But I am not here to give you a woe-is-me address. Well – not an entirely woeful address. And the reason why I won’t do that, and the reason why none of us should accept the argument that it’s impossible at the moment to move anywhere on this issue, is because the stakes are simply too high.
Before I get into the meat of my remarks though I know the Academy Awards will be broadcast in a few days and I was looking at the list of films that are nominated this year, and I noticed that a lot of these films have something in common. A lot of them tell stories about people overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to succeed. And I thought they actually hold lessons for those of us working on climate change and energy issues.
So maybe there is something in the culture right now. Maybe we need these stories about people taking on big things, overcoming big challenges in their lives. And maybe those of us working on the climate change issue should take note. We may feel unlucky from time to time, but we cannot let it get in the way of our work to help shape solutions to the climate challenge facing this country and the world. The simple fact is that the evidence of climate change continues to pile up in front of us. We ignore it at our peril.
2010 tied 2005 as the warmest year on record. Nine of the 10 warmest years have happened since 2001. Last year, Russia faced the worst heat wave and droughts in its documented history. Unprecedented flooding in Pakistan left 2 million people homeless and millions more requiring emergency aid. There was also unprecedented seasonal flooding in Australia. And nearly all of the Northern Hemisphere was dealing with a massive heat wave last summer.
Each of these events, every one of them, is consistent with what scientists say we should expect in a warming world.
Even the record cold and snowfalls that much of the United States has been dealing with this winter can be seen as a glimpse of what we’re in for as atmospheric greenhouse gases increase and the climate becomes more unstable. It simply defies common sense to ignore the link between man-made climate change and these numerous extreme weather events. I am not saying climate change caused these particular storms and bitter cold, but this is exactly the kind of thing scientists say we should expect more of in the years to come. Add to that the declining sea ice in the Arctic, receding and disappearing glaciers, and the many other signs of irreversible change, and it’s hard not to feel that we are loading the dice. I have three young grandchildren, another is on the way. And it is hard not to wonder about the world they will grow up in.
What kind of world will it be? To what extent will their generation have to pay for the things we didn’t do today?
This is what’s at stake. And this is why we need to persist in our work on these issues. Over the next two days, we will be talking about many important topics, from transportation and land use to adaptation to what it will take to build a clean-energy economy here in the United States and around the world. We will also be talking about the varying yet complementary roles of the state and federal governments in addressing these issues.
I want to use my remarks here this morning to share what I believe is a realistic outlook of the challenges we face and draw your attention to a few small signs of hope. Because while the politics can look bleak, there are a few indications that action on this issue might still be possible in the months and years ahead.
The first positive sign I want to point out is the commitment of this White House to clean energy as a priority for the United States. In his State of the Union address, the President set a goal for the nation: to get 80 percent of our electricity from clean energy sources by 2035. He may not have used the words “climate change” in making this proposal, but the implication for the climate is clear.
The White House knows full well that public support for renewables and other alternative energy sources remains strong. A recent Gallup poll found that more than 80 percent of voters favor clean energy legislation … although voter support does drop, sometimes below 50 percent, when people are asked to consider the costs of shifting to cleaner sources of energy, however manageable those costs might be.
Adopting a clean energy standard would obviously be a big deal and a significant step forward. But is it politically possible? My guess is no – not right now. Not to say that there isn’t real interest in a CES – but realistically, the chances of such an initiative passing the Senate are very small – and probably zero for getting through the House. Still – it’s useful to set a goal – and start the conversation.
This takes me back to the lesson from The King’s Speech that I mentioned: It takes hard work and determination to communicate in ways that mobilize people. Even in the face of considerable opposition, those of us who believe in the need for action on this issue must continue our efforts to connect with the public. We must continue to make our case. And we must continue to connect our cause to other related causes for which there is considerable public support.
This is why we should all be pleased that the White House has placed clean energy issues front and center as it continues to develop its “Win the Future” innovation agenda for the nation. As the Obama administration very rightly points out, China leads the world right now in clean energy investment, and we have a lot of work to do just to keep up, let alone overtake China as the world’s clean energy leader.
And the White House’s commitment on these issues is not all talk; it’s not all about photo opps and messaging. One unmistakable sign that the Obama administration wants to see real action on climate and energy issues comes from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Remember the message from The Fighter? Don’t count yourself out. Well, EPA is making an effort to stay in the fight despite some very long odds, and some very tough opponents in the opposite corner of the ring.
Even as he talked about reducing “unnecessary” government regulations in his State of the Union address, the President made a point of saying that he – quote – “will not hesitate to create or enforce common-sense safeguards to protect the American people.” This was an obvious shot across the bow to those members of Congress who have stated their interest in depriving EPA of the ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.
Let’s be clear here. The Supreme Court in 2007 decided that greenhouse gases meet the definition of pollutants under the Clean Air Act. The Court left it to EPA to decide if emissions of these gases presented a risk to public health and welfare. And EPA decided they did, based on overwhelming scientific evidence underlying the risks of climate change. It’s not just the Obama EPA that feels this way. 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.
In fact, EPA’s recent actions on this issue aren’t all that different than the step-by-step plan spelled out by the agency under President Bush, a plan that was described at the time by the Administration as “prudent and cautious yet forward thinking.” Today’s actions are largely the same, and yet they’ve come under attack by a vocal contingent in Congress.
What regulatory road is EPA headed down? The initial rules requiring mandatory reporting of emissions, substantially improved fuel economy for cars and vans, and best available control technology for large new and modified sources are a good start. Later this year, EPA is expected to propose additional stationary source controls, with a focus on the electric power and oil refinery sectors. And even in these cases, EPA’s actions are extraordinarily modest.
And so they may be pulling some punches, but the fact remains that EPA is staying in the fight. 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. Indeed, the budget bill passed by the House of Representatives last week would repeal EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases from stationary sources, although it leaves regulations of automobiles intact.
The House budget also proposes major cuts in climate-related programs at EPA and other agencies. EPA funding was reduced 30% overall, including the Global Change program, with even larger cuts to the greenhouse gas reporting program. NOAA’s Climate Service program was zeroed out as well. Among the many Energy Department programs with reduced funding, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy face a 40 percent cut. And for a high-profile hit, funding for the Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, recently held by Carol Browner, was eliminated. Looking internationally, nearly all funding for U.S. commitments under the UNFCCC process was slated for elimination, including funding for the IPCC and the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change.
It’s not a pretty picture, and I cannot honestly tell you how it will be resolved. Certainly there will be cuts, certainly there will be policy riders to appropriations bills, and certainly there will be attempts to legislate away EPA authorities directly. But those seeking these changes will not have an easy ride, and I would guess that many of these attempts will fail.
So – sticking with the ‘fighter’ theme – on the budget front, we’re probably only in round 2 or 3 of a 12 round match.
More positive signs come from the world of business.
As all of you know, the White House right now is making a very deliberate effort to build business support for its policies. The President’s recent address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was just one part of this effort. It came, you will recall, shortly after he appointed Jeffrey Immelt of GE to head the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. GE and its CEO have been leaders in the American business community on the issue of building a clean-energy economy, so the Immelt appointment makes sense. And it’s a reminder to the American public that there is considerable support among U.S. business leaders for reasonable action to promote clean energy industries and jobs, reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil – and, incidentally, reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, too.
There remains great interest in the business community in clear and certain U.S. energy policy. “Certainty.” You hear the word again and again today in conversations with business leaders. Dow CEO Andrew Liveris was on NPR last month and in simple, eloquent terms he stated that businesses need to know the regulatory rules of the road to have a better idea of what types of investments will pay off down the line. He clearly articulated the need for government to engage proactively with business to create public-private partnerships to spur innovation and create jobs in clean energy and other sectors.
So this idea that all of business is some scary villain standing in the way of action on these issues is inaccurate. In fact, the business world appears to be taking a lesson from the third film I mentioned, True Grit. Many of these companies started on their journey years ago to reduce emissions, increase efficiency, and pursue business opportunities in the clean energy sector. And they aren’t about to be dissuaded from staying on the trail. It may be tough sometimes, and the political winds may be blowing against them at the moment, but they are intent on pursuing this to the end.
Up to now, my remarks have been mostly Washington-centric, and I apologize. That’s what you get for coming to the nation’s capital to talk about climate change. But, of course, all of the action (or inaction) on this issue does not happen in Washington, and so let’s take a look at the picture at the state level. The news from the state capitals on this issue in recent months has been decidedly mixed. While regional climate initiatives continued to push forward in the past year, the November elections brought to the nation’s statehouses a group of new leaders who adopted strong stands against climate action in their campaigns. In the State of Montana, a bill was introduced that would overturn the laws of science and nature and simply declare that carbon dioxide does not cause global warming.
But this is another case where we should remember the story of Mickey The Fighter and not count ourselves out. Because there was an important bright spot in the elections. I am talking about the overwhelming defeat in California of Proposition 23. This measure, as you know, would have suspended a 2006 law intended to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Shortly after the 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. While further legal challenges are pending, California is still in the fight. And there is strong public support for what the state wants to do.
Yes, Californiawill 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 emission has to be a positive sign. It is a sign that the issue is not going to quietly disappear into the night. Much of the financial support for the “No on Prop 23” campaign came from the venture capital and tech industries in California. These companies understand the market opportunities that clean energy and energy efficiency provide, and despite the millions of out-of-state dollars poured into the Prop 23 campaign, they were willing to invest in making those opportunities real.
And, of course, California is not alone among the states in advancing serious measures that reduce emissions. Here at this workshop over the next two days, we will all learn more about what’s happening on this issue in states across the country.
For instance, Maryland has new energy laws to increase renewable energy production and create more incentives to purchase electric vehicles, which are especially well-suited to the state’s compact land use. And Maine has recently adopted laws to expand energy efficiency and boost clean electricity generation with the aim of preserving the Pine Tree State’s scenic landscape for its many vacationers.
As they have since the dialogue began way back in the 1990s, many U.S. states are taking the initiative, advancing solutions, and providing a learning laboratory for the rest of the country so we can see what works in practice. And that is definitely a positive sign.
The final very small positive sign I want to talk about is what’s happening outside the United States. The agreement reached by international negotiators in Cancún in December fills in many key missing elements of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, including a stronger system of support for developing countries and a stronger transparency regime to better assess whether countries are keeping their promises. The Cancún Agreements also mark the first time that all of the world’s major economies have made explicit mitigation pledges under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Of course, the ultimate goal of the continuing international talks must be a comprehensive binding climate treaty. That’s the goal of the journey we started on this issue way back in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio. But in Cancún we saw countries agreeing on incremental steps that will deliver stronger action in the near term and keep the world on course toward someday (we hope) agreeing to binding commitments.
So to recap, I see four small but positive signs amid what I acknowledge is a very challenging environment. They are: 1) the White House’s continuing commitment to doing something on this issue in the face of very strong political headwinds, in part through common-sense steps at the EPA; 2) support for reasonable action on energy and climate issues among U.S. business leaders; 3) some progress on these issues in California and other states; and 4) continued progress in the international climate talks.
I don’t want to be a Pollyanna here. I understand as well as anyone else that all of these small positive signs I have mentioned are positive only when you compare them to all of the negative things that are happening out there today. We are like all of the leading characters in the movies I have mentioned. In a very difficult fight. On a journey in hostile territory with the odds sometimes appearing overwhelmingly stacked against us. Facing enormous challenges in communicating, getting our message across, getting more people on our side.
I cannot promise a Hollywood ending to this drama we’re in but I can say this: all is not lost. And getting to a place where we are confident about the prospects for action on this issue that we all care about so deeply is going to require each and every one of us to recommit ourselves to this fight. To recommit ourselves to staying the course in our journey. And to recommit ourselves to communicating in more compelling and more coherent ways about what’s at stake here, and about what we can and must do.
Think about transportation. With gas prices rising and oil now exceeding $100 a barrel, it’s hard to argue against realistic solutions that can lessen our oil dependence while reducing greenhouse emissions. The Pew Center just last month released a report that showed it’s possible to get to a cleaner, more secure transportation system that could deliver up to a 65-percent reduction in emissions from the sector between now and 2050.
Solutions are out there. We can meet the challenge of building clean energy industries and creating clean energy jobs. We can reduce U.S. and global emissions of greenhouse gases. But we are going to need true grit to get this done.
Thank you very much, and I hope you enjoy the conference.