On Climate Change, the US Needs to Generate More Than Energy

“Not later. Not someday. Right here, right now,” said President Barack Obama last week, speaking on climate change and asserting the global leadership role of the United States. Obama’s long-awaited announcement to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline deal – a project that deeply divided American political parties and citizens on energy and the environment – was peppered with references to US leadership and a commitment to clean-energy innovation ahead of his attendance at COP21 in Paris.

After the embarrassment that was Copenhagen in 2009, Obama needs to prove that commitment to the world – and the world is watching. But the problem with Obama’s bold stance is not the rest of the world; the reason that US leadership is met with skepticism if not outright derision is in Texas and Florida, not Togo or France. Even as Secretary of State John Kerryvowed that the United States “cannot ask other nations to make tough choices to address climate change if we are unwilling to make them ourselves,” most nations already demonstrate a willingness to act, rather than talk, about averting environmental disaster. Rather, it is the American citizens themselves who don’t care that much about climate choices, according to recent polls – despite their complicity in all that carbon and consumption.

It is the collective yawn of an American electorate that tolerates conservative leaders completely tone-deaf to climate realities, like Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, a climate-science denier who says he may crash the Paris talks to disrupt any progress on climate policy – and maybe throw a few snowballs too.

What’s really unfortunate about America’s conservative leaders is not the fact that they’re conservatives. Researchers at the University of Bergen in Sweden looked at the climate change positions of conservative parties in nine different democracies, the recalcitrant Australia and endlessly dithering UK among them, and found only America’s GOP to be as virulent in its opposition.

Look no further than the cringe-worthy crop of 2016 GOP presidential candidates – Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio – to understand that Obama’s bold stance on this legacy issue can wash away with the next political tide. Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign video of GOP claims that climate change is a “hoax” or “scheme” or “Trojan horse” makes one almost grateful for Rep. Chris Gibson and the other 10 House Republicans working for climate action, as well as the four GOP senators who join them, including Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Ayotte became the first GOP senator to publicly support Obama’s Clean Power Plan last month, and these contrarian GOP rogues offer hope that the tide may actually turn in Washington, at least before it starts to inundate the vulnerable capital district because of sea level rise.

US Renewables: It’s About Time

What Ayotte and far more seasoned sustainability champions embrace is a plan that cuts greenhouse gas emissions at power plants by 32 percent of the 2005 level by 2030, while shifting 80 percent of the work of generating US electricity to renewables by 2050. About 40 percent of all US carbon emissions result from generating electricity, so the plan is meant to help support America’s international pledge of reducing emissions by about 25 percent by 2025. The US commitments, in the context of a much-touted bilateral agreement with China, rely on existing solar, hydropower and other renewable technologies enhanced by innovation. The challenge is formidable, but the plan gives lie to shopworn conservative arguments: renewables cost too much, thwart job creation, prove unnecessary because climate change doesn’t exist and isn’t related to human activity if it does. Or alternately, it’s pointless and irrelevant because other nations aren’t “doing anything” anyway – as if this catastrophe was a sibling squabble. For example, China’s coal-powered aluminum industry has put at risk the entire American aluminum industry, which, like its counterparts in Russia and Iceland depends on more expensive renewables and hydropower. But that argument is structurally flawed – renewables are expensive only if government policies make them so.

America’s comparatively poor performance on renewables can’t be overstated. The most current World Bank data shows that just 12 percent of America’s total electricity output comes from renewable sources, Washington lagging behind 80 other nations such as Latvia and Paraguay to Myanmar and Tajikistan. Among them is Germany at about 23 percent – itself a nation led by an environmentally astute conservative in Angela Merkel. How well the nation weans itself from dirty lignite coal remains a question. So does the role of nuclear power, in Germany and elsewhere as it falls from favor because of its sobering risks. Yet there are many environmental advocates that want to revisit nuclear for its relatively safe, clean and cost-effective potential in reducing carbon emissions.

Even the increasingly coal-consuming India is edging out America on renewables, while Brazil’s hydropower and biofuels deliver more than 80 percent of its energy. Wind-driven Denmark sees days with clean energy to spare- and sell – to Germany, Norway and Sweden, but it routinely generates about half of its power through renewables. If Obama wants to lead on climate change, then a chastened US will need to do better than everyone from Latvia to Myanmar – and that means American conservatives need to lose the sensational stunts, quit the obstructionist exceptionalism, develop humility on just how much the US lags on renewables because of oil majors and coal-dependent corporations, and act like leaders of a bipartisan America that needs desperately to care about far more than politics, polls and ratings.

On the same day that Obama made his announcement, another United Nations report raised red flags on meeting the 2C targets needed to mitigate the worst climate impacts. Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University scientist and global climate expert, warns that it’s getting late fast, and our options narrow if we “twiddle our thumbs for another 10 years.” Yes, Obama’s leadership is critical to the global effort, but America’s political will matters more on the Potomac than it does in Paris – perhaps forever.