Reality Trumps Magical Thinking Time to Act on Climate Change

FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, smoke rises in this time exposure image from the stacks of the La Cygne Generating S
FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, smoke rises in this time exposure image from the stacks of the La Cygne Generating Station coal-fired power plant in La Cygne, Kan. This year the nation’s weather has been hotter and more extreme than ever, federal records show. Yet there are two people who aren’t talking about it, and they both happen to be running for president. In 2009, President Barack Obama proposed a bill that would have capped power plant carbon dioxide emissions and allowed trading of credits for the right to emit greenhouse gases, but the measure died in Congress. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, Filr)

The election was a win for a fact-based approach to reality, and a loss for the magical approach some candidates and their handlers displayed. No, Mr. Akin, women do not have a magical ability to suppress a rapist's sperm. No, Mr. Rove, Fox News did not miscall the Ohio vote. And no, climate deniers, climate change is real, happening now, and we've got to address it, or we are going to have even bigger Superstorm Sandys raining down on us.

President Obama, who was helped by Mayor Bloomberg's endorsement for his more realistic approach to climate change, has signaled that he too thinks it's time to accept the facts and get moving. Recent polls show nearly three quarters of Americans agree with the President that it is time to act on climate change. So what can the President do? Some suggestions:

Speak out about the urgency of climate change. While President Obama has mentioned climate repeatedly during the first term and has shown since the election that he wants to do more, he has never made a major address on the subject. Freed up from running for office again, he should speak out with urgency. Research at Yale University by Tony Leiserowitz indicates that if the President does speak out forcefully, many Americans will respond affirmatively to the call for action, and they will be more willing to demand action by their elected leaders.

Continue exercising executive authority to lower emissions and to build clean energy markets. The President has already done a lot by establishing rules to decarbonize federal purchases and by using federal buying power to build clean energy markets, but he can do even more. An excellent examination of options on executive authority was delivered to both presidential candidates by the Presidential Climate Action Project in October.

Recognize there is no single silver bullet solution; success will come from hundreds of policies and actions by every level of government and the private sector. In other words, adopt a silver buckshot approach.

Prioritize actions that reduce emissions and contribute to the creation of the low carbon economy of the future. There is no greater economic opportunity for the U.S. One analysis from the international bank, HSBC, suggests that the low carbon economy today is already worth $500 billion a year, and that it will easily be worth more than $2 trillion a year by 2020. Where else are we going to find three more $500 billion economies over the next 8 years? The nations that win the battle for this huge market will be the ones that deliberately prepare for it by enacting smart policies to drive market creation. A poll released last week says ninety-two percent of Americans believe we ought to be pursuing a clean energy future.

Smart policies that make buildings more efficient, increase the share of locally produced renewable energy, and make transportation more energy efficient will reduce emissions and also keep money in people's wallets and in local communities rather than shipping it somewhere else. These dollars benefit local businesses and spur local investment.

Recognize that Washington's role is critical, but that the federal government does not need to do (and can't with a divided congress) all of the heavy lifting by itself right away. States, cities and companies have lots of experience already with creating comprehensive approaches to reducing emissions and growing their economic output and they can do more. Some of this effort languished after the 2010 failure to advance federal legislation on climate change. The President can help revitalize these sub-federal efforts by encouraging a national approach that supports and integrates additional efforts by every level of government and the private sector. These efforts will begin the large scale national mobilization required.

To jumpstart a national approach, the President should convene a bipartisan national climate action planning council composed of sitting and former governors, mayors, CEOs and civic leaders to explore and then support economically advantageous approaches to climate action.

The President's signal that the starting flag has gone up on an urgent national effort to comprehensively address climate by building the low carbon economy of the future should also aim to send a much needed signal to private capital markets. Private annual investment in clean energy worldwide grew to nearly $250 billion in 2011, and that's good news, but we'll need even more to successfully drive the necessary transition.

The President must also lead a national conversation about preparing for the inevitable impacts of climate change. This will connect the dots in the heads of Americans. Up until now when a drought destroys crops across the U.S. as happened this past summer, or a tornado evaporates a large section of Joplin, Missouri like it did in 2011, or a Sandy devastates New Jersey and New York as it did two weeks ago, politicians have been reluctant to say climate change is contributing to these events. I sense this just changed because of Sandy. Naming it and helping Americans make these connections will spur more urgency to take action and encourage elected politicians to speak out forcefully. With greater public support, Congressionally mandated solutions like a carbon tax will become more possible too. Preparing for climate change impacts will also save billions of dollars and thousands of lives. The head in the sand approach encouraged by the hokum-pokum denier chorus will only continue to cause unnecessary misery and expense for the country.

To undertake a broad scale approach to climate action that operates publicly and privately, federally and sub-federally, the President must add a senior advisor in the White House to convene, facilitate, and support this national effort. A coordinated, multi-agency approach like the one President Obama demanded his government take in response to Hurricane Sandy will also help.

The President should also be honest with Americans about coal. Besides being the biggest contributor to climate change, it is an outdated, unhealthy, and unnecessary energy source. Its economic benefits to the country today are actually modest and shrinking. There are almost as many people employed by the solar industry today in the U.S. as in the coal sector, and while coal use declined by 40 percent in recent years, the solar industry is growing 13 percent a year in the U.S. Lets retrain the dwindling number of coal miners employed in the sector, assist communities that will be harmed by the decline in the use of coal, and move forward into the future with modern clean energy sources that will generate many more jobs than coal ever will. There is no such thing as clean coal anyway. Let's give up on that magical thinking as well.

In a bit of good news, it turns out that the somewhat haphazard approach that the U.S. has mustered to date to lower greenhouse gas emissions is having an impact. A study released Thursday by the Center for Climate Strategies says projected U.S. emissions are currently significantly below expectations from a decade ago. The slowdown in the economy is one important reason, but several other contributing factors have made a difference. First, hundreds of successful, locally-driven efforts to shut coal fired power plants have helped shave the share of carbon-intensive coal fired electricity in the U.S. from 50 percent to about 30 percent. Second, the vehicle efficiency standards this administration and the auto companies agreed to in 2010 will lead to a sizeable carbon emissions reduction. Third, the hundreds of actions already taken by cities, states, and companies over the past decade to become more energy efficient have also contributed to national emissions reductions. All of these actions are leading to energy savings, new investment, and economic productivity.

This hopeful news is an indicator that we can continue to layer in new and deeper actions across the economy and continue to drive a rapid downward trend in emissions with a positive economic result.

To get to the even deeper reductions in climate change causing emissions that atmospheric scientists say are required, there will no doubt be substantial public investment required as well, but as Cass Sunstein wrote in the New York Times a week ago, the cost benefit of avoiding additional $50 billion disasters in New York or $150 billion dollar ravages in New Orleans should easily encourage us to move forward boldly. As we do so, the next economy--the clean energy economy--will be so enormous, we will all wonder how we allowed magical thinkers in the climate denier community to keep us from moving forward more quickly.

The opinions and views of the author do not necessarily state or reflect those of his employer.