We Can Win the Battle Over Climate Change

Posted November 18, 2008 at 4:24pm

The 111th Congress and the incoming Obama administration together are preparing to meet significant challenges at home and overseas — and topping the list is putting our faltering economy back on the path of growth.

[IMGCAP(1)]While there will be a temptation to push all other priorities aside, I would caution our elected leaders not to ignore what I believe is one of the most pressing long-term issues facing our economy and our environment: how we continue to secure the energy we will need for the next 100 years without further damaging planet Earth.

Voters of both major parties want affordable, reliable energy that does not pollute the air. Energy issues garnered significant applause when both candidates spoke to their party conventions about the issue. Americans clearly care about energy costs. They care

about avoiding the continued emission of carbon into our atmosphere, and they care about achieving energy independence for our country. As well they should.

These are complicated issues, with significant disagreement about the right path forward. Clearly, President-elect Barack Obama will want to declare early victories on energy and climate change issues. How, then, should we go about doing that? I offer a few areas for our new president and Congress to consider:

• Focus On Creating Clean-Energy Jobs. Decision-makers cannot ignore the high costs of new energy sources, especially as taxpayers are already paying for the bailout of several Wall Street firms, automakers and other major employers. Yet new energy investments produce economic benefits as well. Consider the impact of construction of proposed new nuclear reactors — as many as 3,000 to 4,000 jobs at peak periods of construction for each new reactor, according to a new report by the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a group I chair along with Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore.

Fortunately, some 17 companies and consortia are now considering more than 30 new reactors. Once built, each new reactor will provide 300 to 700 permanent jobs, in addition to valuable tax revenue to communities. Green jobs will also be created with investments in alternative fuels, renewable resources and the research needed to take us to the next level of clean energy.

• Enact Cap-and-Trade Legislation. It will always be hard for alternative-energy technologies to compete with carbon-based energy sources on cost. Alternatives are not as well-developed and therefore less efficient, and what’s more, carbon-based energy producers don’t pay for the costs of pollutants entering our atmosphere — costs that we all must bear as a result. A cap-and-trade system for pricing carbon and other greenhouse gases would eliminate this free pass. [IMGCAP(2)]

When I was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, I saw firsthand what the Clean Air Act amendments accomplished. That law, enacted to combat acid rain, created a trading program based on government-set standards for safe concentrations of sulfur dioxide. The results were startling. Levels of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere fell below what the regulation had required, and we experienced nearly universal compliance across all emitters. Even more significant, this was done with less cost than anticipated and faster than required by the regulation.

• Support Measurable Progress on Climate Policy. In 2002, the EPA created Climate Leaders, a voluntary partnership with industry to help companies identify their emissions, create long-term plans for reducing them and then annually report their progress. The participants in the program today represent a wide range of industries from all 50 states. They include both small and large employers, and their numbers continue to grow as more companies recognize climate change as a significant issue. There are lessons to be learned from these partnerships and other efforts currently being undertaken by business that may well defuse the criticism that long-term emissions controls are always bad for business.

• Don’t Tie Your Own Hands. We are still learning about potential new energy sources, and numerous political leaders have adopted new positions on energy and climate change issues as more evidence has become available. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) recently revisited his opposition to nuclear energy after considering the environmental benefits that the industry makes possible. The unintended impact of corn-based ethanol on the food supply both here, and worldwide, has caused many to rethink their position on that issue.

Government is at its best when it identifies priorities and areas for support but not a particular technology. For example, Congress should consider a mechanism such as a clean-energy bank to help finance any carbon-free energy source.

• Focus On Creating Energy Options, Not Removing Them. In time, our nation will have to make hard decisions about our current reliance on power from domestically produced coal. But for now, let’s focus much more on keeping all sources of energy in the mix, especially when one of our chief energy policy goals is less dependence on foreign oil. It will require a broad, bipartisan and all-region approach to energy policy to achieve that goal.

Obviously, I believe that nuclear energy will play an important role in the energy and climate policy discussions over the next few years. Voters indeed want new sources of economical, reliable, emission-free electricity produced in America by Americans. I hope that Obama and the Congress keep an open mind on the permanent and secure storage of nuclear byproducts so that this source of clean energy can continue to play its current role in our energy mix.

But nuclear is only part of the solution to achieving a sustainable energy future. America must use all its resources — conservation, efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear energy and clean coal, as well as gas and oil if we are going to solve this problem and meet the projected increase in electricity demand of 25 percent by 2030. Indeed, Obama will need to forge a bipartisan approach toward achieving this goal. The voters expect this kind of effort — and in two or four years, our nation’s newest policymakers must show that, at the outset, they assessed the challenge, defined a new direction and delivered on their commitment to the American people.

Christine Todd Whitman formerly served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator and governor of New Jersey. She is now co-chairwoman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition and president of the Whitman Strategy Group.