This blog-and my career, frankly – has carefully steered clear of politically sensitive issues and focused instead on advocating for smart public policy. But having lived through summer after summer in Washington, D.C., with temperatures continuously climbing above 100 degrees and increasingly violent storms (with scientists echoing that things seem to be progressing more quickly then once thought), I finally am compelled to comment on the topic of climate change.
Given these circumstances, it seems that at long last, a real conversation about climate change is bound to happen. I actually think climate change policy does not have to be mired in politics, especially when the skepticism is concentrated in a small part of the political spectrum in Washington, D.C.
In 2010, I participated as part of a trade delegation to COP-15 in Copenhagen. I was then heading up the GridWise Alliance, and attended the climate negotiations to meet with other business leaders and observe the proceedings. I came away with two distinct impressions.
The first was that multi-national corporations clearly saw climate change as a business bonanza; that through developing solutions to mitigate climate change, they would profit.
The second was that many of the country delegations participating in the negotiations were there because the lives of their citizens were threatened by environmental destruction caused by climate change. They had travelled to dark, cold, expensive Denmark in December, in some cases bringing their own food to be able to afford the trip. These were their countries’ negotiators; top envoys and leaders desperate to have others listen to them and recognize the dire results that climate change had delivered to their homes. It seemed to me then that saving these countries from imminent danger-and creating a business case in so doing-were not mutually exclusive.
More savvy attendees managed their expectations. Hopes were high but despite efforts from the very highest levels, including the President, a grand deal did not emerge from those talks. Back in the states, cap and trade legislation, which passed the House, failed in the Senate. New legislation to address climate change has not been discussed seriously since, and the topic has become taboo in many political circles.
I think the pendulum is due to swing back.
We continue to hear reports that communities in Alaska that have existed for centuries are having to relocate because of reduced hunting and fishing grounds caused by climate change. Increased extreme temperatures and dramatic weather events have continued to wreak havoc in nearly every corner of the nation. Not a single person or someone they know has remained untouched. Whether these events can be directly attributed to climate change is still a point of discussion, but climate scientists are only more convinced that it is here and now.
Sooner or later, the federal debate on climate change will rekindle and, while legislation may look different from the Waxman-Markey bill of 2010, it will contain key elements that can drive a low-carbon energy future. State and local governments are already showing leadership by enacting climate policies; California is embarking on a cap and trade program, for example. Utilities are investing in technologies like smart grid and energy storage that can maximize the use of renewables and make fossil fuels more efficient. Technology development and deployment is continuing to create new wealth and jobs, despite the inaction in Congress.
And once that movement in Congress thaws, we can be in a position to help ourselves in so many ways. By devising an energy policy that asks-and strives to answer-the question “what do we want our country to look like in 50 years?” we can create incentives and groom markets for clean technologies, processes and applications that could significantly abate the threat of climate change. If we can articulate that vision and lay the policy foundation, investors will flock. Clean tech investment is still robust; private equity companies know there is money to be made. With a market that rewards reduced carbon emissions, investment-and profit-will only increase.
So, while the current rhetoric is often divisive and the hope of legislative action of any type seems bleak, we need to remain tuned in to the emerging opportunities for clean energy and innovation public policy. Even in the unlikely scenario that the climate was to instantly stabilize, there is no risk (and potentially enormous benefits) to forging ahead on clean technologies.