Climate at the Crossroads

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | July 29, 2011 | Climate Change, Energy Policy

Two years ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Congress’ first-ever climate legislation to reduce carbon pollution by implementing a market-based trading mechanism known as “cap and trade.” Despite the support of the President and a majority of American people, this climate policy became hopelessly stalled in the U.S. Senate and today we seem further than ever from seeing that or any other carbon-reduction policy enacted into law. [It must be noted that the cap and trade concept was not invented in 2008-2009, but has been a working market-based system to reduce acid-rain producing pollutants from power plants since the early 1990s.]

One can point to a variety of reasons why climate-focused “cap and trade” was considered dead on arrival in the current (112th) Congress: the Great Recession, record unemployment, unending wars, spiraling debt, a Congress beholden to oil and coal industries and, most importantly, a well-financed and dishonest campaign designed to spread doubt about the validity of climate science.

In 2009 and 2010, climate deniers in Congress and the media won the day by re-framing and re-naming the climate debate to “cap and tax.” It was a catchy slogan and it resonated with many skeptics during the depths of an economic recession, but killing the proposed policy doesn’t alter the fact that we’re still pumping millions of tons of heat-trapping pollutants into the atmosphere every day altering the world we live.

Although cap and trade failed in the 111th Congress, other climate-friendly initiatives are becoming a reality in our country even as we speak. Take President Obama’s announcement earlier today on newly proposed clean car standards that will cut annual gasoline use by as much as 23 billion gallons, reduce annual emissions of global warming pollution by as much as 280 million metric tons, and save Americans over $80 billion at the gas pump annually by 2030 according to analysis by our allies at Union of Concerned Scientists and Natural Resources Defense Council. These new standards build upon the historic improvements in the fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles unveiled by President Obama and the auto manufacturers in the spring of 2009.

In addition to transportation-related policies, the economic stimulus package, known as the Recovery Act, was passed in February 2009 with a variety of carbon-reducing measures.  Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency began moving forward with new regulations to limit global-warming pollution under the Clean Air Act based on a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, Mass. vs. EPA.

And climate trading programs have not disappeared altogether – some still exist as state-based initiatives and in international markets.  Although Southeastern states are not in the vanguard, regional carbon trading programs in other parts of the country are slowly moving forward and California’s program is set to begin next year, despite the best efforts of well-funded climate deniers to derail the process. Furthermore, the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (a $2 billion program), is up and running and remains, for now, the world’s only major carbon allowance and offset market. Even though these state programs and overseas markets may not have enough economic or political clout to leverage national policy change in the US in the near term, we can hope their perseverance and long-term success may cause federal leaders revisit the issue in a few years.

Former Vice President Al Gore isn’t waiting for that political ‘some day’ though, and just this month he launched a new climate initiative called the Climate Reality Project to highlight the fact that the climate crisis is real and that we have the tools to solve it if we will face facts and get involved.

For now, the United States remains at a climate crossroads. The path we’ve been on has been profitable for climate deniers who benefit from the status quo but very damaging to human health and the planet’s health as well. A better pathway forward harnesses all available forms of clean, renewable energy – solar, wind, geothermal, sustainable biofuels – as well as energy efficiency in order reduce carbon pollution, while having the added benefit of new job creation to pull the United States out of the recession. We have much at stake and great incentives – including cleaner air and better health – to chose the right path.  Make your voice heard in the media and to elected leaders so we can get started.

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