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Op-Ed: The Moment to Tackle Climate Change

Op-Ed

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

By John Kerry

Published in Politico on April 22, 2010

No matter what conventional wisdom says, this is the year -- perhaps our last, best chance -- to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation.

The right bill can create good jobs, strengthen our national security and give us cleaner air -- all while finally tackling the great challenge of global climate change.

We all understand election-year jitters, difficult legislative schedules, a looming Supreme Court confirmation and Congress's reputation for avoiding tough choices as November nears. But these are reasons to insist we step up and lead on climate and energy, rather than settle for an energy-only bill.

Why?

First, because Americans are frustrated with Washington.

They voted for change in 2006 and 2008. They heard President Barack Obama promise in 2008 to take action to protect "a planet in peril." They saw both presidential candidates agree that climate change was an urgent issue.

Now, they expect Democrats and Republicans to put aside differences to do what they were elected to do.

Nothing makes Americans more cynical and frustrated than to see another year go by without action on threats that they feel deeply: our dependence on foreign oil -- which makes Iran $100 million richer every day -- and reckoning with global climate change.

Second, because in this case, good policy is also good politics.

This is a fight to create good jobs here that can never be outsourced. This is a fight to close the energy gap with China -- so that we can reclaim the lead rather than falling further behind in the global competition for clean-energy jobs, manufacturing and markets.

In fact, China just raised auto-efficiency standards to 36.7 miles per gallon, higher than our new 2016 target. Its renewable-energy capacity is now only 2 percent less than that of the U.S., and renewable energy is set to grow from almost 10 percent of energy use to 15 percent by 2020. And last year, for the first time, Chinese renewable energy investment exceeded ours.

This is also a national security imperative because it reduces dependence on foreign energy. This dependence takes nearly $500 billion a year out of the U.S. economy and ships it to too many countries that don't share our values.

Jump-starting our economy, ending oil dependence that helps hostile regimes and winning the global competition against China? Those sound like good politics to me. They are issues to campaign on.

Third, because all the stakeholders -- environment and industry -- are at the table.

If Congress does not address climate change, the administration will use the Environmental Protection Agency to impose new regulations. Imposed rules will not include the job protections and investment incentives that Congress is proposing.

The message to those who have spent years stalling: Killing a Senate bill is not success.

Indeed, given the threat of agency regulation, those working to bring the legislative process to a halt will surely come running to Congress later. Industry needs the certainty that comes with congressional action.

As for carving "energy only" provisions out of a comprehensive measure?

It falls far short of what we need. We must overcome the economic and ecological dangers created by our increasing reliance on fossil fuels for more than 40 years.

Passing "energy only" means passing the buck to another Congress. We can't. Quite frankly, we are running out of time.

It may even be that an "energy only" bill -- with no cap on carbon pollution -- might do more harm than good.

As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), now working with me and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to craft a comprehensive approach, has said, America will never gain energy independence without some mechanism for pricing carbon pollution.

Fourth, because the Senate is focused on action.

Unlike health care, we begin with bipartisanship -- extending from conservative South Carolina to progressive Massachusetts. A year of intense meetings has shaped a new dynamic.

Even Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who co-sponsored the amendment that many link to the death of the Kyoto Protocol, is urging action rather than inaction. "To deny the mounting science of climate change," Byrd wrote last year, "is to stick our heads in the sand."

Congress is now focused on "how" not "if."

Twenty-two moderate Democrats recently wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to endorse the comprehensive approach over "energy only." And for good reason.

A comprehensive bill would create an estimated 1.9 million jobs over the next decade, whereas the "energy-only" measure would generate, at most, 500,000.

In addition, a comprehensive bill would cut U.S. oil imports in half. It would reduce carbon pollution by 2 billion metric tons by 2020 -- a pace that could help prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Meanwhile, an "energy-only" bill does little to reduce U.S. oil imports beyond opening drilling areas on the Outer Continental Shelf. It would result in only a 260 million metric-ton cut in U.S. carbon pollution.

Fifth, because a comprehensive approach is a better deal for taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, with carbon allowances, it could reduce the federal deficit by about $21 billion by 2019. The "energy-only" bill, on the other hand, adds $13 billion to the deficit during the same period.

In an election year, it is tempting to settle for the "energy-only" bill -- then go home and declare victory.

But the stakes are too high to do less than we know we can. Workers are counting on the new jobs -- now. Our troops are counting on us to break dependence on foreign oil -- now. Our children and grandchildren are counting on us to address the climate threat and its effects on the planet they'll inherit -- now.

These stakes stretch beyond partisan politics and election cycles.

We, as Americans, have not lost our ability to take on big challenges. We have acted boldly in every crisis we faced as a nation.

The New Deal helped lift America from the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s. The Marshall Plan helped restore postwar stability in Europe. The Apollo Project put a man on the moon in the 1960s. The Pentagon's ARPANET program formed the backbone of the Internet that spawned the information boom of the '90s.

It's time for us to lead -- again.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


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