Our New Relationship With Cuba | Commentary

Posted February 6, 2015 at 11:41am

The United States and Cuba are moving rapidly toward re-establishing diplomatic ties, which raises an interesting question: What does warming relations between these two nations mean for a warming climate?

I grew up in Miami and have vivid childhood memories of regularly practicing diving under our school desks during the Cuban missle crisis. As Florida’s top environment official, and later as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, I was keenly aware of how the U.S. and Cuba were connected through a shared ecosystem and shipping channels even if not through official channels. And, last year, I finally traveled to Cuba and saw the place and met the people who have had such an influence on the politics of my hometown and my country.

One of the most striking images that remain with me from that visit was of the dark plumes of power-plant pollution streaking over the sun splashed capital of Havana.

I went to Cuba with the Center for Democracy in the Americas to understand how Cubans are experiencing the effects of climate change, and what environmentalists and some stewards of government policy are doing to address it as both the weather and their economy undergo significant changes. Cuba has irreplaceable natural resources and habitats unique to the Caribbean and treasured globally. The decisions they make today about their energy future need to account for these resources and preserving them for the future.

This is why Congress should get beyond the politics of Cuba and recognize the economic opportunity and mutually beneficial outcomes that normal relations and collaboration with Cuba can provide. The United States has the technology and the know-how that can be used in Cuba to develop energy resources responsibly. This is an opportunity for American businesses that Congress should embrace.

For example, more than 75 percent of Cuba’s electricity is produced from “thermal” sources, burning substances such as waste, oil and diesel which create dangerous emissions that threaten public health and exacerbate climate change. Despite very favorable conditions, less than 1 percent of Cuba’s energy comes from renewable sources. Most wind and solar expansion is done at the microlevel, installing mills and panels on homes, churches or community buildings.

Meanwhile, Cuba has pursued an aggressive offshore drilling exploration and development program in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico near the United States. Although drilling to date has not been successful, Cuba will resume off-shore activities in 2015.

The threat from another deep-water drilling disaster is significant for both countries. Florida has invaluable assets of its own — the Keys, the Everglades and beaches on both coasts — within miles of Cuba’s drilling sites. Cuba’s own coastal communities could be threatened by a spill. Given what occurred just a few years ago with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, understanding Cuba’s energy needs and how they can be met by clean source solutions should be a U.S. priority, and the re-establishment of relations with Cuba provides a significant opportunity for progress in clean energy development in Cuba.

The good news is that scientists from both countries have worked for at least two decades on environmental protection and civil preparedness projects in our mutual interests.

But the U.S. embargo, a relic of the Cold War, has served as a self-defeating limit on what we can achieve. It prevents Cuba from using U.S. technology in their mitigation strategies, including renewable energy technology that would cut Cuba’s carbon pollution and other toxic pollutants. The embargo keeps our wind turbines and solar panels out of Cuba’s energy mix. That’s bad for the U.S. economically and bad for the climate globally. Thankfully, that is about to change.

Cubans understand the threat climate change poses to their island and they are ready to join the U.S. in developing panhemispheric strategies to protect our people and shared resources like the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. While we still have much work to do to get to normalized relations, collaborating on climate change solutions is an area where we can build the trust we need for other significant bilateral progress.

The responsibility to address climate change is a global one, and international cooperation will be important to our success. By ending this anachronistic policy and working to build a better energy future for the hemisphere, we can warm relations while we slow the warming of our climate.

Carol M. Browner served as administrator of the EPA from 1993 to 2001 and as director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy from 2009 to 2011.