The State of the Union is This: America is Ready to Take Bold Climate Action

February 8, 2013
Kevin Knobloch
Former contributor

The President’s recent remarks about the imperative to take action in his second term on the threat of climate change can be understood as a sequence of purposeful statements meant to signal intent and resolve.

From his speech on the night of his successful re-election to his remarkable inaugural speech and multiple times in between, the President’s clear and inspiring comments offer a clear rationale and compelling call to action. His next big speech, the State of the Union, is traditionally where presidents provide more details on their plans for the coming year, and we can expect President Obama to do that next Tuesday.

In his speech on election night, he said, “We want our kids to grow up in an America…that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

At his first press conference after his re-election, the President responded to a reporter’s question about climate change with an extensive, highly informed answer, emphasizing: “I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions.  And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.”

Then, in his inaugural address, he devoted more precious text to climate change than to any other issue, including an emphatic: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”  He underscored the robustness of climate science, saying, “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

The American people, the Congress, our nation’s corporate leadership and the President’s cabinet can now have no doubt about his intent and resolve to lead on this problem.

The moment—and the economics—are ripe for bold action

Our collective job now is to respond to his call to action by demanding bold action from our leaders at every level of government, and to win adoption of policies and practices that achieve the mandate of swiftly and deeply reducing greenhouse gas emissions here and globally. Alden Meyer, our director of strategy and policy, eloquently laid out the range of needed policy options in his recent blog, so I won’t be reviewing them again here.

Instead, I want to make the case that the time is ripe for a renewed round of leadership and progress in the fight to address climate change—a reading of the evolving economics and politics of climate change that, in addition to his acute understanding of the magnitude and urgency of the problem, may well be behind the President’s inclusion of climate action in his top second term priorities.

Consider these signs of readiness to tackle climate change:

Strong leadership at the state and local levels—Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger come quickly to mind when we think about who has led their states in attracting clean energy companies and in reducing carbon pollution. But they are but the tip of the iceberg, as an impressive number of local elected officials are leading the way in preparing their cities for climate change while reducing their jurisdiction’s carbon footprints—leaders like Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, Grand Rapids (MI) Mayor George Heartwell, and Broward County (FL) Vice Mayor Kristin Jacobs. Republican governors Sam Brownback of Kansas, John Kasich of Ohio and Terry Branstad of Iowa are bullish on wind and solar power in their states, as they appear to appreciate the positive economic impact these growing sectors have contributed through a deep recession.  Washington State’s new governor, Jay Inslee, campaigned on an aggressive transition to a clean energy economy. In every corner of the country, elected officials are leading on climate action, and while they are not waiting for federal leadership, many would welcome it. And the design of federal climate and clean energy policies can build upon and learn from the exceptional work being done in the states and communities.

The clean energy economy is helping states prosper—The wind and solar power industries have been one of the brightest stories of our economic recovery, as they have been helping struggling state economies pull out of the recession by adding quality jobs, private investment, more reliable electricity generation, and an expanded tax base while doubling in size. The domestic auto industry is similarly back on its feet, in large part by filling its showrooms with significantly more fuel efficient vehicles featuring advanced green technology. American consumers are responding by choosing stylish new options such as the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Lincoln MK3 Hybrid.

An especially encouraging sign has been the rejuvenating boost that all this activity has provided to the struggling U.S. manufacturing base. In 2005, just 35 percent of the wind towers, blades and turbines installed at American wind farms were made in the U.S. Today nearly 70 percent are made in America, at nearly 500 manufacturing facilities in 44 states. Those manufacturers are locating their plants in states that have put out the welcome mat with supportive policies (like Colorado, where 6,000 people are employed making wind turbine and tower components today) and/or have strong wind resources (like Iowa, which today generates more than 20 percent of its electricity needs from wind alone). Wind manufacturers in western Michigan, noting that the industrial design and metal-bending skills cross over nicely, are expanding production and hiring laid-off auto workers.

The clean energy sector now has a proven record of growth and reliability, and is ready for the demands that strong climate policies will make of it.

The best and brightest innovative minds are on the case—We are starting to harvest the exceptional fruits of a dispersed network of innovators and investors across the country that is making our economy and lifestyles much more efficient and carbon-friendly. That network lives in the technology labs and production lines of Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Vestas WindSystems, Siemens and General Electric; in the tens of thousands of scrappy young companies birthing and nurturing the next generation of technological advances in Silicon Valley, Kendall Square, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle; in the scientists, engineers and industrial designers who pursue labors of love at the national labs in Boulder, Berkeley, Los Alamos and Argonne; and in the risk-taking venture capital investors concentrated in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Together, that network represents our economic future—and an entrepreneurial team ready to further expand the markets for American-made ever-more-efficient products and services that smartly-crafted public policies will open.

We’re successfully pioneering new ways to write the rules—The process that yielded the new auto standards that will nearly double the fuel economy of passenger vehicles in the U.S. by 2025 are a model for other major sectors of our economy for how to meet their responsibilities to deeply cut their carbon pollution. In that instance, the Obama administration sat down with leadership from major auto manufacturing companies, the United Auto Workers, and with UCS and other technical experts and negotiated a bold leap forward in reduced heat-trapping emissions from vehicles sold in the U.S. The negotiators were disciplined in setting science-based emission reduction goals while open to flexibility in how the companies met those goals.

As we turn to other major carbon-emitting sectors—such as electricity generation, oil and gas refining, heavy manufacturing, transportation and buildings—for similar leadership, the success of the process to reduce tailpipe emissions and set a clear roadmap for the next decade or two can be emulated. The essential keys are crafting a performance standard with clear metrics and milestones based on what science tells us about the magnitude of needed carbon emission reductions and being open to creative and flexible ways for industry to meet that standard.

Millions of Americans are connecting the dots—In the last year alone, extreme weather and other conditions that are worsened by climate change ravaged or stressed the lives of millions of people, and recent polls show that more Americans are connecting the dots and accepting the science. The extreme drought that destroyed crops throughout the farm belt was consistent with scientists’ projections that we’ll see more frequent and extended droughts. The forest fires that took lives and livelihoods in Colorado, northern California, and other states were exacerbated by drier soils and tree-killing pests like the pine bark beetle. Hurricane Sandy’s storm surges were more destructive in part because of sea level rise along the Atlantic coast.

As new summaries of climate science and impacts become available through the draft National Climate Assessment released last month and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report due out beginning this fall, the President and other leaders have the tools needed to educate the American people about the nature and urgency of the problem. But as with many state and local leaders, many Americans have been drawing on their observations of their region’s changing climate—as gardeners, hunters, hikers and carpenters who spend time outdoors—and have a personal understanding of the phenomenon unfolding around us.

Re-setting the national conversation

In his press conference after the election in November, President Obama said he planned over the coming months to have a “a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what…more can we do to make short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary, a discussion…across the country about…what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.”

That has led UCS and others to urge the President to follow through on his interest in initiating this national conversation by convening leaders of the science, business, labor, civil rights, environmental justice, security, faith and environmental communities, along with elected officials at the federal, state and local levels, for a White House Summit on Climate Resilience. One promising approach would be to convene a series of regional climate impacts and solutions gatherings as a learning tour as a build-up to the national summit. These steps would help educate the American people about the need for bold and urgent action, engage national and community leaders in devising strategies for climate preparedness and risk reduction, and direct and build the growing demand among Americans for responsible action.

Like many of you, I am eagerly awaiting the President’s State of the Union address, to learn how he will propose acting in response to the ever-clearer threat posed by climate change. Combining his powerful leadership with the legions of Americans in the private sector, in government and in our communities who are already hard at work reducing global warming emissions is an exciting development, and gives me real hope that this response will be appropriately ambitious and bold.