The New Path Forward on Climate Change

This was originally posted on the Huffington Post.

Every major reform in our nation's history has suffered defeats on the path to victory. From free trade to civil rights, setbacks have been a part of progress. But ultimate victory comes to those who learn from their defeats and press forward with new determination and perseverance.

The failure of the United States Senate to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation this year was a serious setback for America, and for the world. The continuing cascade of scientific evidence shows that we are dangerously changing our climate, and the urgent need to act remains. So what do we do?

Our view is that we must be much more aggressive in pursuing pollution reductions under existing law, through America's never-ending ability to innovate, and through partnerships with companies that can transform the marketplace. There are many companies making real change, and we intend to work with them.

However, we have well-financed enemies in this fight, and it is time to sharpen the nation's focus on the businesses that obstruct vital progress.

For EDF, that means our historic interest in cooperation over confrontation will be recalibrated. We will always negotiate where possible, and we will continue to look for collaborative opportunities and flexible solutions. That is who we are, and we will continue to pursue those goals.

But there are companies that continue to choose short-term profits over public health, and who feel they are better off opposing progress. These companies have friends in the Congress, and they believe they will have more political leverage against the Environmental Protection Agency as the balance of power shifts in Washington next year.

Meanwhile, they are already marching into the courts to challenge virtually every breath EPA takes in this area. Our view is that the public and the investor community need to have far greater awareness of the companies engaged in indiscriminate obstructionism. We will look for ways to hold them accountable through every reasonable lever at our disposal. We will learn to be as tough with them as they have been with us.

We are evaluating everything from engaging more actively in corporate governance — the annual meeting of shareholders and outreach to boards of directors — to more active involvement in state Public Utility Commissions where the rubber meets the road on the scope of pollution — or pollution reductions — associated with major capital investments. And we are looking at a variety of ways to involve the public more actively in a conversation about who the big emitters are, where they operate, and what steps they are taking to reduce their pollution.

It doesn't have to be this way, and we would rather spend our time working on smart policy and win-win solutions. But we have no choice. We cannot allow the efforts of a few powerful companies to block necessary progress for the rest of us.

At the same time, we must accept the reality that climate change has a political problem. For too many people, opposing a solution to climate change has become a political and ideological dogma. As long as many in Congress feel required to oppose any measure in this area, we will not succeed.

If we are going to de-carbonize our economy, we have to de-polarize the politics surrounding the conversation. It is worth remembering that no major environmental law has ever passed without substantial bipartisan support. This has always been the case — but the incoming Congress is a fresh reminder that bipartisanship must be the foundation of future progress.

In short, while being more aggressive and vigorously fighting to achieve critical emissions reductions, we — the environmental community — must be more open. Our response to this political problem must be to engage more widely and listen more carefully, not dismiss or belittle those with whom we disagree.

We will have to reach out to new partners, make new allies, and engage new constituencies. We have done so with a large part of the business community, and we will learn to do so with others.

We cannot expect that the public will support change without understanding the reasons for it. But we cannot browbeat our way to a broader understanding of the science behind climate change and the benefits of taking action. We need to start with the real problems people face in America today – from jobs and energy security to clean air and water — and work with them to find answers to those problems and the common challenge that faces all of us.

Fortunately, even in this difficult year, there is a path emerging that will allow us to begin to solve climate change, and there is a foundation upon which to build.

Within the last year, a controversial and overly complex but important climate bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives and received serious consideration among a number of Senate offices. Even where substantive disagreements remained, a new and significant understanding of policy issues and solutions was achieved — which is essential to move forward.

More broadly, public support for action on climate change, energy security, and clean energy remains strong. Just last month, in the largest public referendum on environmental policy, millions in California voted to keep the state's landmark climate law on the books, saying that clean energy jobs are a path forward through a difficult economic climate. Californians rejected polluter-funded attempts to overturn the law by a 22 percent margin despite 12 percent unemployment in the state.

Meanwhile, the level of business support for meaningful climate and energy policy has reached new heights. A number of cities, states and regions across the country remain committed to moving forward. Plans for 130 new coal burning power plants have been canceled. The Administration moved forward with national greenhouse gas standards for vehicles, and talks are beginning for the next phase in 2016.

In order to continue to make progress, a new openness to different solutions will be essential. For our part — long standing advocates of a cap and trade approach — we need to accept that whether policies are cap and trade or something else is less important than whether they collectively provide a clear guarantee that emissions go down. More broadly, every entity looking for solutions to climate change will need to embrace flexibility and creativity in their policy approaches.

We will be guided by three principles as we work toward our pollution reduction goal:

  • We will judge ideas and policies by their potential to produce results. Performance is what matters.
  • Our approaches should be cost effective. This will lead to maximum pollution reduction returns for our investments and broader and durable public support.
  • We will involve as many sources of pollution, and methods for reducing and absorbing pollution, as possible.

How do we actually achieve the goal? National pollution limits established by Congress are still necessary for long term success, but in the short term we can take steps that move us in the same direction.

Our first priority must be to defend the pollution limits already in law, at the federal and state level. EPA has the responsibility under existing law to protect us from pollution, including the carbon emissions that cause global warming. It has done so thoughtfully over the years when regulating other air pollutants, and it can do so here. In fact, there may be no greater governmental success story than the Clean Air Act. We must encourage our neighbors in cities and in the countryside, to understand and protect the benefits of that law to our economy and our health, which have outweighed costs by more than 30 to 1; and to tell the stories of avoided premature deaths and childhood asthma attacks, and the shroud of smog lifted from our cities.

As with every pollution limit ever proposed, there will be some who will work to block, weaken, or delay any rules EPA tries to put on paper. We will fight them at every turn, making their full agenda clear to the American public: they seek not only to allow unlimited carbon pollution, but to derail limits on toxic mercury, lethal particulates, and other harmful contaminants in our air. We must remind America that obstructionists are attacking the fundamental public health protections of a bipartisan law that has stood for 40 years.

At the same time, we will encourage forward-thinking utilities and other businesses to reduce their pollution, and work with them to do so. And we will work on policies and programs that will allow for improved efficiency in the ways that we use and distribute energy — work that will save money as well as energy, and making our overall economy more competitive. Many businesses have already seen the benefits — lower energy bills, reduced regulatory issues, greater competitive advantage — and are making real, measurable strides.

These stories of what the world can be, both profitable and sustainable, are essential to return to a useful discussion about national limits for greenhouse gases. These examples will be more persuasive, because they are more concrete, than any other approach. There may be no more critical work that we will do over the next few years.

And we will continue to make the case that America will be stronger when we change the way we make and use energy. We cannot depend on hostile nations for so much of our energy, or slip further behind the Chinese and Europeans in creating new energy technology and jobs. Many of the issues about which we care the most — jobs, dependence, and competitiveness — are directly related to the issues of energy and pollution. But America will not support protective pollution limits or a transition to a cleaner energy economy if it does not believe that the solutions under consideration are solutions to these concerns.

In the long run we believe the path forward will be built from a continuing focus on solutions, and an aggressive approach combined with willingness to find new answers to the challenges we face. We must listen as well as speak, though speak we must. When we take this approach, we can seek out and work with people across the political and cultural spectrums with different approaches to solving our energy or climate challenges, and we can travel the path forward, together.

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    Megan CeronskyMegan Ceronsky
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