2 august 2012

Remarks at Dartmouth College (Part II)

Todd Stern, U.S. Department of State Special Envoy for Climate Change. Hanover, NH, August 2, 2012

Let’s turn now to domestic policy and politics. We know that international agreement on climate is critical, because climate change is a quintessential “global commons” problem, where countries won’t act unless they have confidence that their partners and competitors are acting as well. But the real key to bringing down emissions is national action. And the action that is at the heart of the matter is the transformation of the energy base of our economies. So let’s take a quick look at what the U.S. has done over the past 3 ½ years.

Although large-scale legislative action was blocked in 2010, President Obama has accomplished a great deal through executive action:

In the transport sector, accounting for some 35% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the President has put in place historic new standards that will nearly double the fuel economy of our cars and light duty trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Dan Becker, a long-time climate activist and Director of the Safe Climate Campaign called it “the single biggest step the American government has ever taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions.” And we have also introduced the first efficiency standards for heavy duty vehicles.

In the building sector, accounting for 40% of U.S. emissions, the Department of Energy is leading an aggressive effort to boost the efficiency of buildings through stepped up appliance standards that will affect virtually everything that uses energy inside buildings. And this effort is making a difference. In 2005, the Energy Information Agency projected that CO2 emissions from buildings would increase 53% by 2030. But by 2012, EIA’s projection for the same time period had dramatically changed – rather than a 53% increase, EIA now projects a 2.4% decrease in CO2 emissions by 2030. Part of this change is attributable to slower economic growth, but by no means all. Better energy efficiency is a big factor.

In the power sector, EPA recently issued CO2 regulations for new power plants that cannot be met using coal unless the resulting emissions are captured.

Boosted by major investments under the 2009 Recovery Act, the U.S. has nearly doubled renewable electricity generation from wind, solar, and geothermal energy since 2008.

And the Administration is also pursuing a multi-track R&D approach under the leadership of our Nobel-Prize winning Secretary of Energy, Steve Chu. This includes:
First, funding a new agency, “ARPA-E,” to support early-stage research aimed at delivering game-changing energy technologies. ARPA-E is modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – DARPA – the agency responsible for innovations including the Internet and stealth technology;

Second, creating Energy Innovation Hubs – large, mission-oriented research efforts that bring together top researchers from academia, industry and government laboratories. The first three Hubs were for energy efficient buildings, nuclear reactors, and fuels from sunlight. The President recently proposed three new Hubs for smart grid technologies, batteries and energy storage, and critical materials.
Third, establishing 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers, mostly university-led teams working on basic research to overcome technical impediments to clean energy development.

This R&D effort may end up being more important than anything else. The best hope for containing climate change is likely through major advancements in technology, so government R&D support is crucial. Some still insist that government should just stay out of the way of the private sector, but our history tells a different story. Technological step-change has been aided by government engagement over and over again, from railroads, to the interstate highway system, aviation, telecommunications and the internet. More recently federal research support helped lay the groundwork for the new horizontal drilling techniques that are revolutionizing the production of natural gas and altering the U.S. energy landscape.

One final point: since 2006, according to the International Energy Agency, U.S. CO2 emissions have fallen 7.7%, the largest reduction of any country in the world in that time period. Meanwhile, the latest figures from the Energy Information Agency, for the four months ending in March, show that U.S. emissions are 14% lower than in 2005. There are many reasons for the U.S. emissions decline, some relating to the broader economy, some to fuel switching from coal to natural gas, some to the measures taken by the Obama Administration, outlined above. But these are statistics few people around the world would have predicted even a year ago.

In short, the President has made real progress on climate and clean energy on the strength of his executive authority. But for action of the scale we need to transform our economy, there is no substitute for national legislation. And this truth brings us back to the question of the political challenge of climate change in the United States, because national legislation of scope and reach requires a broad base of engaged public support.

Such support is not easy to come by. Climate change, by its nature, is a tough issue politically. It involves short-term cost for long-term benefit. Its dangers seem distant and can be crowded out by more pressing concerns. It is complicated, and the link between global warming and natural disasters often feels uncertain to people, since scientists can’t say global warming caused this particular event. A sense of issue fatigue can take hold, born of the difficulty of making rapid progress. The natural propensity of the press to give equal time to both sides of any issue, even when the evidence lies overwhelmingly on one side, can leave people confused. And then, of course, ideological interests have worked overtime to make this issue too hot to handle.

What we need is a straight-shooting conversation that explains what’s at stake in climate change and why we need action to accelerate the transformation to a clean energy economy. We can and should make clear that there are immediate, non-climate benefits to doing this – building America’s competitive future, since clean energy will be one of the defining industries of the 21st century; making our air cleaner; protecting our health against conventional pollution. But we also need to make clear that the severe risks of climate change make this transformation essential if we care about sustaining our health, our prosperity and our national security. Climate change is what makes the transformation of our energy system an engagement of necessity, not one of choice.

On December 12 of last year, the Economist’s on-line blog said: “A hundred years from now, looking back, the only question that will appear important about the historical moment in which we now live is the question of whether or not we did anything to arrest climate change.” I wouldn’t go that far – we are surely dealing with other seismic issues in this historical moment. But, the underlying point of the blog is on target. While potent issues of the moment will always command our attention, we must also take the long view, acting now to avoid crisis down the road.

So we need to present the case – both the short-term benefits and the longer-term imperative – in a sober, persuasive way, not alarmist, but not pulling punches. The benefits of action are manifest; the costs manageable.

We also need to go beyond the usual suspects to find trusted figures – including from business and the military – who can speak to a broad constituency. My own conviction is that if you talked privately to the CEOs of the Fortune 500, the vast majority would recognize that climate change is real, serious, and calls for a concerted response. Exactly what that response should be is a fair subject for debate, but if we can at least establish the priority of developing such a response, we’ll have taken an important step forward.

Finally, we need energy – the human kind – which can be found in large supply in places like this and among young people across America, whose stake in what we do about climate change couldn’t be higher. Your future is now.

Paving the way for broader national and international action on climate and energy won’t be easy for all the reasons I’ve outlined. But it can be done and we need to start.

Once again, thank you so much for the invitation to come back to Hanover to share some thoughts. I’d be happy to take questions.

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