President Obama’s Clean Power Plan has generated strong reactions within the energy community and across the political spectrum. The plan is a reaction to the lack of legislative progress on climate change beyond limited tax incentives for renewables, many of which have expired or are scheduled to expire this year and next. We asked Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to speak with us about the outlook for U.S. climate change efforts, political roadblocks to success and how an effective national energy policy could help achieve climate objectives.
Q: How would you evaluate our progress to address climate change in the United States in recent years?
A: The United States has actually done a lot to combat climate change through voluntary programs, but it never gets talked about. Despite having not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, we have been well ahead of many developed countries in terms of emissions reductions, thanks in large part to private initiatives that don’t get enough credit. The problem, of course, is that the discussion surrounding climate change has become so politicized in recent years.
Q: Do you expect climate change to play any role in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election?
A: I think it has to. The Obama administration’s efforts — including the recent unveiling of the Clean Power Plan — have turned climate change into an essential discussion topic as the primary debates gain steam. Utilities, power plants and big campaign donors are so vested in how new regulations will be implemented that the issue will force its way onto the agenda and the public consciousness, even though the environment is typically never one of the main issues in a presidential election.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Clean Power Plan?
A: It’s a very complicated initiative but it does give states as much flexibility as I have ever seen in terms of meeting emissions targets — which I think is a good thing. I am not convinced, however, that a shift toward renewables alone will be enough to achieve the proposed 32 percent reduction in carbon pollution from U.S. power plants from 2005 levels by 2030, given that electricity demand is projected to increase 29 percent by 2040.
We must recognize the importance of other sources, such as nuclear energy, in reducing pollutants. The continued aversion to nuclear energy is a hangover from Chernobyl and more recently from Fukushima, and many environmentalists are against it. However, more than 50 percent of Americans support nuclear energy use.
Q: How have the shale oil and gas revolution and the subsequent lower oil and gas prices affected the outlook for renewables?
A: The lowering of oil and natural gas prices has undoubtedly changed the market and made investors wary in terms of where they are willing to invest. We have been here before in the case of over-investing in one form of technology, making us vulnerable to a single source of power. The bottom line is renewables cannot survive without government support, and those subsidies are being drawn back in the current budget and economic environment.
Q: What steps can and should U.S. policymakers take to put us on a better path toward addressing these issues?
A: We need to take a long-term view toward supporting investments to bring carbon emissions down. One of the biggest challenges is getting over the feeling and the political rhetoric that climate change is not a real issue and instead have a sensible discussion about the solutions.
Republicans in particular need to stop demonizing the issue. Vociferous objections to any climate-change agenda fit nicely into the Republican anti-regulatory, anti-government overreach stance — and there has been government overreach here — but in many ways climate change should be a conservative issue. There are economic opportunities and new job creation attached to climate change technology and investment, not to mention that, as a core principle, it is conservative to be a conservationist.
Q: One of the biggest barriers to making progress on climate change has always been framing the issue in terms of the individual. People ask, “How does this affect me?” and “What can I do about it?” How can we change this line of thinking?
A: One of the hardest things we had to do at the EPA was convince people of the cumulative impact of individual behavior. Without that context, it is easy for people to maintain that climate change might not be real and therefore it is extremely difficult to get people to change their behavior.
We need to get people to focus on the opportunity costs — including economic costs — of not acting on climate change. We are dealing with premature deaths from poor air quality, increased cases of asthma, rising healthcare costs and economic output lost from days of work lost, but it is challenging to put those things together in a meaningful way.
Q: Much of the information about climate change comes from nongovernmental organizations. What role should the government play in making the impact of climate change relevant to citizens?
A: Government is often a follower, not a leader, on these issues. Look at the creation of the EPA, for example. It did not come about because the government suddenly decided climate change was an issue. It grew from a public outcry in the face of tangible changes to the environment. When rivers are bursting into flames (Cuyahoga in 1969), families can’t bring their children outside because of poor air quality, and the land is becoming a great garbage heap, the public demand for change alters the politics.
Today, we need a defining argument that sparks emotion — like detrimental effects to the health of our children. People also need to realize that a climate change agenda is not by definition at odds with an economic agenda. Between 1980 and 2012, the population of the United States grew by 38 percent and our energy consumption increased by 27 percent, while the total emissions of the six common air pollutants dropped by 67 percent and GDP more than doubled in real dollars. We need to remind people that it is possible to have the economy grow while improving the environment around us.
Q: Do we need a more clearly defined national energy policy? What should it look like?
A: Yes, we need a national energy policy that is simple and direct. We need clean, green, reliable, affordable energy. If we accompany that clear message with specific goals and national standards, utilities can make market-based decisions as long as government doesn’t overstep on the regulatory side.
There is nothing worse for a multinational corporation than having to meet numerous different environmental regulations. Before George W. Bush’s State of the Union in 2007, the leaders of several major corporations stood with leaders of environmental groups and said, “Regulate us.” They want certainty and harmony on greenhouse gas regulations so that they can make the appropriate longer-term decisions.
Q: How do you see the distribution of energy sources shifting over the next several decades? Where does coal fit?
A: Coal will continue to be part of the mix for a long time. It is still 48 percent of our electricity generation, and there is no substitute for that. However, old coal-fired plants will start to be phased out, and there is unlikely to be much future investment in new coal-fired plants. On a global scale, that’s not necessarily the case. China, for example, has huge demands to bring on new power in order to keep up with GDP growth, and a lot of that will need to come from coal.
One area to watch is carbon capture and sequestration. If we can make headway in this area, it would be hugely important, especially if we also make headway in terms of transporting technology to developing economies.
Q: How is climate change impacting the rest of the world?
A: While the United States has made progress, as I mentioned earlier, the rest of the world generally takes this far more seriously than we do. They see it in a more direct way. In places like Sudan, prolonged droughts in rural areas are shifting the population into cities and worsening unemployment and crowding. We need to realize that climate change is more than a climate issue. Our military leaders, including all of our joint chiefs of staff, have said that this is a national security issue. The economic and social destabilization from climate change in many parts of the developing world breeds discontent and is creating fertile grounds for organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
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