The Kennedy-Johnson Climate Legacy

Fifty years after President Johnson signaled a new concern to Congress in carbon pollution, we know he was right. Fifty years from now, how will the next generation look back on us? Will they say that we dealt with a moral and technological challenge of our time?
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Fifty years ago today, Lyndon Johnson became the first president to warn about the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In a special message to Congress on this day in 1965, he included the emissions of carbon dioxide -- the main cause of global warming -- in his warning on the impacts of air pollution.

Fifty years later, global temperature is increasing. Glaciers around the world are melting. Sea-level is rising. Rainfall and snowfall are more extreme. Heat-waves are hotter.

With signs of environmental degradation across America, it was these two presidents from Massachusetts and Texas who started to take action. Just months before his death, reflecting his tradition of looking skyward, President Kennedy proposed the Clean Air Act in February of 1963. In December of that year, it became the second law President Johnson signed as president.

The law has been strengthened over the years, resulting in an average drop of more than 70 percent in smog, soot and other pollutants since 1970, even as America's GDP grew 219 percent.

Now President Obama is using the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon pollution from vehicles and power plants. By combining Congressional fuel economy legislation that I helped author with the authority of the Clean Air Act to cut pollution, our cars and trucks have reached new highs in fuel efficiency and new lows in carbon emissions. These more efficient cars and trucks are saving consumers money at the pump.

And the same Kennedy-Johnson skyward vision that inspired an era of space exploration can spark a new clean energy revolution. Since the inception of America's space program, solar panels have been a critical power source for missions throughout the solar system.

That same technology is now landing on rooftops and fields across the country. The solar industry now employs more than 170,000 workers nationwide, adding workers nearly 20 times faster than the general economy.

The technological leaps in clean energy have helped my home state of Massachusetts leapfrog others in the pursuit of new, innovative industries and the jobs that come with them. Massachusetts has set ambitious targets to reduce carbon pollution. To help achieve those targets, we have joined with other states in the Northeast to form a cap-and-trade system for power plants called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

And it's working. Carbon pollution from power plants in the participating states is already down by roughly 40 percent from 2005 levels and investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy is up. Since the great recession of 2008, our state GDP has expanded by 23 percent and we now have almost 90,000 workers employed in the clean energy industry in Massachusetts alone. The evidence shows that environmental protection is expanding our economy.

But the gains we have made and the opportunities that solutions hold are in danger of being undermined by fossil fuel interests fearful of losing out in a clean energy economy. Those in fossil fuel states should look again to the Massachusetts-Texas partnership of Kennedy and Johnson. Because even as LBJ was warning about accumulating carbon dioxide, his home state of Texas was the largest oil producer in America.

Nearly two years after he signed the Clean Air Act, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was an act of moral necessity, but also one of political courage. Johnson worked across party lines to help unite a country tearing at the seams. And herein lies another lesson from the legacy of Kennedy and Johnson: that history will judge harshly those who stood in the way of progress that was morally necessary, even as it was politically difficult.

Fighting climate change by cutting carbon pollution is the right thing to do. The consequences of more extreme weather and worse air pollution will fall most harshly on the poor. The national security risks from a more unstable world will be confronted by our men and women in uniform. And the decades of pollution America has contributed to this problem means we have a special responsibility to lead.

Fifty years after President Johnson signaled a new concern to Congress in carbon pollution, we know he was right. Fifty years from now, how will the next generation look back on us? Will they say that we dealt with a moral and technological challenge of our time? Did we follow the Kennedy-Johnson model of bipartisan courage that addressed regional and political differences for the greater good?

We don't have 50 more years to wait for action. As President Johnson wrote 50 years ago: "The longer we wait to act, the greater the dangers and the larger the problem." The time to act is now. We can overcome the threat of climate change. And we can do it together.


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