The Lost Generation of U.S. Climate Policy

The recent report from the U.S. Government on climate change clearly shows that we are already feeling the impact of climate change. It follows the recently released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that demonstrated that the entire world is experiencing unprecedented alterations of our planet's environment as a result of greenhouse gas pollution.

Scientists have been saying that the climate was changing as far back as the 1980's. Margaret Thatcher spoke on the issue at the United Nations in 1989. Some countries listened and changed their energy policy. For example, industrialized Germany now gets 25% of its energy from renewables (up from 6% in 2000) and it should easily achieve its goal of 35% share of renewables by 2020.

In contrast, the U.S. gets 13% of its electricity from renewables--up from 9% in 2000. The U.S. is still one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases in the world.

Part of the problem in our country is that we have not had serious movement on climate change policy in a generation. The only significant federal action was forced on us as result of a 2007 Supreme Court Decision that charged the EPA with regulating greenhouse gases. This set into motion the regulation of power plants and other greenhouse gas emitters.

Greenhouse gas regulation by the EPA is regularly questioned by congress and some in the energy industry. They believe that the executive branch of government is overstepping its regulatory authority since congress has not passed legislation on greenhouse gas management.

As a result, the U.S. policy remains unclear and is likely to change depending on who sits in the executive office. While strides have been made under President Obama, the U.S. remains a huge emitter of greenhouse gases.

Plus, the U.S. does little national coordination of greenhouse gas policy.

In the absence of clear U.S. guidelines on greenhouse gas management, some states have aggressively tried to attack the problem. California, for example, passed a series of laws on climate change dating to 1988. Its most recent law requires electrical providers to provide 33% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.

However, most states do very little. Take a look at Florida. Once in the camp of states trying to achieve ambitious greenhouse gas goals, the current governor once said that he has not been "convinced" that climate change is real. He dismantled all of the efforts that were underway prior to his election.

Even where earnest efforts are underway, they are not as ambitious as they could be or are not coordinated well with state or national goals. For example, a regional climate plan where I live in Long Island calls for a doubling of renewable energy by 2020. This gets us to from 3% to 6% renewables--not even close to the national production of 13% today.

In other words, U.S. greenhouse gas policy is a mess. We don't have clear coordination or leadership at the national level. There is no congressional guidance on the issue. State and local governments implemented a hodgepodge of policies ranging from visionary (California) to non-existent (Florida). In most cases, state and local plans are not coordinated. We cooked up a goulash of earnest but largely ineffective initiatives.

Why do I say this? We are still producing massive amounts of greenhouse gases.

Of course the climate change denial crowd is pleased with this policy chaos. Charles Krauthammer recently called climate change a "superstition" on national television. And in 2012 North Carolina banned making sea level change predictions.

These cringe-worthy situations demonstrate that we have been and continue to be unserious about developing sound national policy on climate change that bridges the political divide. Policies toward adaptation and resiliency rise to national discussion over greenhouse gas reduction strategies. We see more and more discussion on how to manage sea level rise than we do about how to reduce greenhouse gases.

For those of us who have been tolling the bell on climate change for a generation, the new National Climate Assessment is not surprising.

What remains surprising is the lack of clear national policy coordination and the cultural acceptance of climate change denialism within our national media and political discourse despite overwhelming evidence.

We are on the verge of a major national disaster (see here for a hint of what is to come) and national media and political leaders continue to hinder serious efforts to solve the problem.