Climate Change: Action Without National Policy Will Only Get Us So Far

Household panels for solar power and hot water in Kapolei, Hawaii. Photo Credit: Kent Nishimura for The New York Times

Household panels for solar power and hot water in Kapolei, Hawaii. Photo Credit: Kent Nishimura for The New York Times

A “1,000-year” flood in Louisiana. A record-setting drought in California. The creeping northward spread of tropical, mosquito-borne diseases like Zika. People across the U.S. are already experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change. Yet Congress remains unmoved and has yet to pass comprehensive legislation addressing either climate change mitigation or adaptation.

Individuals, corporations, and states are stepping into this policy vacuum—all compelled to take action on one of the most pressing challenges currently facing the world.

In South Florida and elsewhere, people are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest in the infrastructure needed to protect their homes from rising seas. Last year, people installed solar panels on their homes capable of collectively producing over 2 gigawatts of energy. Some evidence (although from England) even suggests that people may be more willing to change their energy use habits when they “feel in charge” and are not merely following government policies.

Corporations are also not waiting around for Congress. Google, Amazon, and other companies are increasingly entering into agreements to directly source their power from renewable sources. The CEO of NRG Energy, one of the nation’s largest power producers, speaks of his company’s “moral responsibility toward the environment” and has professed continued support of environmental initiatives (in spite of shareholder skepticism). Forbes now ranks companies on their sustainability, and over 175 companies, including Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Ikea, have joined an initiative that requires them to commit to meaningful emissions reductions targets. An entire market—the green bond market—has emerged to cater to investors concerned about climate change and environmental risk.

States, too, are opting to take action on climate change to fill the void created at the national level. California’s legislature recently extended its landmark climate change legislation to 2030, and the state is on track to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Even oil and gas stalwart and solidly Republican Texas has taken steps to transition to renewables and leads the country in wind power. The state has repeatedly shattered renewable targets set by Governors George Bush and Rick Perry, leading the Wall Street Journal to profile its efforts in an article titled, “What state is a big renewable energy pioneer?

All this action is promising. However, in order to prevent the global temperature from rising more than the dangerous 2°C threshold, policymakers must do more.

At the federal level, Congress must act. The Clean Power Plan (CPP), an executive attempt to set national policy without the legislature, languishes in the courts. Its survival almost certainly depends on the outcome of the November presidential election. Even if the regulation endures its legal challenges, the CPP and its implementing agency, the EPA, are limited in relying on the 1970s Clean Air Act as their only source of congressional authority.

Highway 80 to Tybee Island, Ga., in June. Photo Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times

Highway 80 to Tybee Island, Ga., in June. Photo Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times

At the state and local level, more action is needed as well. Tybee Island became the first community in Georgia to develop a climate plan. Its Republican mayor felt compelled to act when the only road connecting the island to the mainland began to regularly disappear under rising seas. In a similar vein, those states and cities already suffering from the impacts of climate change should seek to set an example for others and enact policies to reduce emissions and increase resilience.

Climate change may seem like a hopelessly partisan issue. However, in 2008, the GOP platform declared:

As part of a global climate change strategy, Republicans support technology-driven, market-based solutions that will decrease emissions, reduce excess greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, increase energy efficiency, mitigate the impact of climate change where it occurs, and maximize any ancillary benefits climate change might offer for the economy.

This platform goes on to articulate a vision of climate change policies which do not come at the price of economic growth. The last eight years—and the experiences of the corporations and states taking action on this issue—have shown as much is true. If Republicans do lose the Senate and fail to take the White House in November, they will likely find themselves in a position to reassess their policy positions and priorities. Let’s hope that a return to a discussion of the “solutions” they envisioned in 2008 will finally be in order.

Robert Ridel is a Masters of Public Policy student at Duke University focusing on energy, the environment, and climate change.

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