The facts about global warming are becoming clear. We don't know everything about it, but we know it is happening. We know human activities, primarily burning fossil fuels, are...
The facts about global warming are becoming clear. We don’t know everything about it, but we know it is happening. We know human activities, primarily burning fossil fuels, are very probably the dominant cause. We know it is likely to disrupt our economic and environmental systems if we don’t change course.
This is the judgment of one of the most exhaustively peer-reviewed scientific collaborations in history, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
We also know that practical solutions are available — solutions like efficient cars and buildings that save money and reduce fossil-fuel dependence. We know that responsible public policies can limit emissions and encourage investment in clean energy. In other words, we know that we must and can act.
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Global warming is a local and regional issue. University of Washington climate scientists project that we are on course to lose 50 to 70 percent of the Cascade snowpack by the 2050s. Snowpack is the water-storage system for the hydroelectricity that powers our economy and the irrigation that makes agriculture possible. Without it, we would lose a major source of our prosperity, and much of our salmon habitat.
The effects of global warming on the world’s poor are unconscionable. People living on the economic margin cannot handle disruptions to their food and water supplies. Nor can they afford to pioneer solutions. Developed nations paved the way to prosperity using fossil fuels; now we can and must pave a new way, powered by clean, efficient energy systems.
This is a big challenge, but the steps we need to take now are clear. First, we need to waste less energy. Increasing efficiency will stimulate our economy, creating more jobs and profits.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council estimates that energy-efficiency investments in the region can save nearly three times as much power as Seattle uses while substantially reducing energy costs.
Similar savings are available in transportation. The state of Washington calculates that stronger vehicle-emission standards would save Washington consumers over $2 billion at the fuel pump by 2020. And providing better transportation choices can reduce both emissions and infrastructure costs.
We can also prosper by building the clean-energy industries of the future. Already, utility-scale wind farms are quietly churning out inexpensive power near Walla Walla. Biofuel technologies can displace petroleum with transportation fuels from farm country. Digital technology is opening new pathways toward a smarter, more reliable, more efficient power grid.
But at least one key ingredient is missing — a fair, results-oriented public-policy framework for reducing global warming pollution.
A responsible climate policy would start from the science. It would establish a fair system for reducing emissions to safe levels over time. It would include milestones for emission reduction, balancing the need for prompt action against the need to give businesses time to adjust. It would reward investment in solutions.
Private competition, structured within fair rules and clear limits, can be a powerful driver for climate protection. Increasingly, industry leaders are calling for such a policy framework: Wayne Brunetti, CEO of Xcel, the nation’s fourth-largest electric and gas utility, put the point simply in Business Week’s cover story on why businesses are taking climate change so seriously: “Give us a date, tell us how much we need to cut, give us the flexibility to meet the goals, and we’ll get it done.”
Most of the world’s advanced economies have climate policies with emission-reduction targets and timelines. The U.S. as a whole does not, but many states are adopting emission-reduction programs. The progress in the states has been bipartisan, with leadership coming from Republican and Democratic governors alike.
On the West Coast, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington are developing climate plans, including emission standards for vehicles and power plants. Leaders from business, government and civic groups have developed recommendations for reducing emissions under a collaborative process convened by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. A similar group in Oregon has delivered recommendations to Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
With this groundwork completed, the West Coast can take a decisive turn toward a sensible climate policy. By reaffirming Washington’s key role in the West Coast Governors’ Initiative, the new governor can help lead one of the world’s most productive economic regions toward bipartisan action for climate solutions.
The governors and legislatures in Washington and Oregon can also take a very important, concrete step right away: adopting stronger standards for new vehicle emissions. These standards can substantially reduce emissions while saving consumers money, preserving consumer choice and reducing fossil-fuel dependence.
Practical climate solutions are available now, and we will be better prepared for the future if we implement them today. It starts with a clear, simple policy commitment: responsible limits on global warming pollution.
William Ruckelshaus was the first and fifth administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is currently strategic director at Madrona Venture Group. K.C. Golden is policy director for Climate Solutions, a regional group working on solutions to global warming.