Get outside the beltway to change the climate debate

Federal Action on Climate Change and Clean Energy

The past year of extreme heat, drought, flooding and wildfire underscores the need for stronger measures to advance clean energy, reduce carbon emissions and strengthen America’s climate resilience. With the start of a new Congress and presidential term, strong and …

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The National Journal Energy Experts blog asked this week whether we need to rethink the global warming debate, given the gridlock in Congress. My response is, by all means, we need to change the debate about climate change. But that starts well beyond the Beltway, where farmers, coastal residents, small-town mayors and others are feeling its impact – and are seeing the opportunities in a clean energy future.

Michael Bloomberg is hardly the only mayor to link climate change to his city’s well-being. Recognizing that shrinking snowpacks threaten Salt Lake City’s water supply, for instance, Democratic Mayor Ralph Becker is working to avoid future shortages and reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

In Lancaster, California, meanwhile, Mayor Rex Parris, an avowedly pro-business Republican, cites climate change as one of the reasons he’s working so hard to make his city the solar capital “of the world.”

One hopes that over time the insights and experiences of those on the front lines will penetrate the partisan fog that, within the Beltway, renders climate change little more than a foil for political point-scoring.

In the meantime, though, we don’t need to wait for Democrats and Republicans to be overcome by a sudden surge of fellowship for the federal government to start taking steps to better manage the very real risks of climate change.

While comprehensive legislative action would be ideal, President Obama has the authority to take meaningful steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without Congress. All he needs is the willingness and commitment to act.

He demonstrated his willingness this year by clearly calling for climate action in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses. Now he needs to demonstrate commitment.

One clear signal of that would be to finalize the long-delayed EPA regulations of emissions from new power plants and to start work on rules for existing power plants — the source of one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Our C2ES policy guide lists other actions the administration could take that would make an impact, such as stepping up efforts to reduce emissions of methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons. The administration could also build on its new rules doubling the fuel economy of passenger vehicles — the single most important climate step taken by the administration so far — by adopting stronger fuel economy and emission standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.

If members of Congress do decide to engage on climate change, they could start by enacting the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency proposal, which would be a modest step in the right direction. It passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee 19-3 and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.

A far more significant step would be for Congress to set a price on carbon so that we’re taxing things we don’t want, like pollution, and perhaps directing the revenue to reducing taxes on things we do want, like employment and productivity.

Climate change is not theoretical. Its impacts are being felt here and now. It’s already causing glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise. While its connection to tornadoes is unclear, it is already increasing the intensity of certain extreme weather events, like droughts and storms, and we should continue to draw those connections wherever the science bears them out.

Most important, we must get on with the job of reducing the emissions causing climate change, and making our communities and critical infrastructure more resilient to the impacts we unfortunately cannot avoid.