Why we could see climate change action

I recently replied to a question on the National Journal blog, “Do the results of the 2012 election pave the way for Washington to achieve bipartisan energy and environment policies?”

You can read other responses at the National Journal.

Here is my response: In his victory speech, President Barack Obama called for an America “that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” With mostly the same players who failed to pass any significant climate legislation returning to Washington, can we expect a different result?

Possibly — and for two reasons.

First, Hurricane Sandy could be a game-changer. After a year of record drought, wildfires and heat waves, Americans were already making the connection between extreme weather and climate change. In a Yale survey released in September, 70 percent of Americans said they believe global warming is real.

Then came Hurricane Sandy — a massive, costly, deadly storm whose rainfall and storm surge were intensified by warmer ocean temperatures and higher sea level.

It’s too early to know whether Hurricane Sandy will catalyze a strong national response in the way that chemical contamination in Love Canal in New York spurred the creation of the Superfund program. But with Sandy’s costs still mounting, President Obama and other political leaders have an opportunity to press the case for stronger climate action.

Second, we don’t know when Congress will consider drafting a strong climate and energy policy, but we do know lawmakers absolutely cannot avoid confronting some very serious fiscal issues. And that may, oddly enough, provide an avenue for policy to help address climate change.

The fiscal challenges ahead — tax reform, entitlement reform, deficit reduction, avoiding deep defense and domestic cuts – could be eased by additional revenue. A carbon tax is one potential source – and if used, for instance, to offset payroll or other taxes, could be revenue-neutral. Taxing things we don’t want, like carbon emissions, and reducing taxes on things we want to encourage, like productivity and employment, could be one idea where we find common ground.

Putting a price on carbon as part of a broader fiscal or tax reform package would spur the development and deployment of clean technologies and put us on the path toward the steep emission reductions needed to avoid the worst projected impacts of climate change.

Meanwhile, we expect the president will continue pursuing an all-of-the-above energy policy, including strong support for renewables. And he’ll use the tools at his disposal to step up efforts at the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases and other pollutants associated with fossil fuel use.

We also see the possibility for targeted action. For example, a bipartisan Senate bill would promote the use of captured carbon dioxide for oil recovery, a proven technology that will boost domestic oil production while reducing  carbon emissions. The bill would begin implementing the recommendations of the National Enhanced Oil Recovery Initiative, a coalition of industry, state, labor and environmental leaders we convened with the Great Plains Institute.

If we tackle some of these issues one by one, look for opportunities where interests converge, and are open to compromise, we can arrive at practical solutions that help both our economy and our environment.