Reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Last month, President Obama fulfilled a key campaign promise made during his second inaugural address to take significant action on climate change by unveiling a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020.

The announcement was celebrated by thousands of Sierra Club members that have been urging the President to take real action on climate change for years. And contrary to what climate change deniers claim, our views mirror the vast majority of mainstream Americans.

In fact, a February 2013 poll by the Benenson Strategy Group found that 65 percent of registered voters support President Obama taking “significant steps to address climate change now,” and a whopping 93 percent of Americans agree that we “have a moral obligation to future generations” to leave them a planet that is not polluted or damaged.

Some have criticized the President for taking this action without Congress, but we would also take issue with that. In 2004, President Bush declared a mandate after winning 286 electoral votes in his re-election, despite barely winning the popular vote. If that’s a mandate, then there’s an even better case to make that President Obama, who garnered 332 electoral votes, has been given an even stronger license to take action on climate change.

And given the underwhelming performance of Congress over the past several years (especially since Citizen’s United allowed corporations to gum up the works of our democracy), most admit that seeing real action on any major issue these days depends on having a plan that doesn’t hinge on, in the words of former State Rep. Spencer Black a “do-nothing Congress that is in thrall to the energy corporations.”

The President’s plan achieves crucial greenhouse gas reductions by establishing stronger energy efficiency standards for federal buildings and appliances, scaling up renewable energy production on public lands with an ambitious new goal to power 6 million homes by 2020, and by using the full authority of the Clean Air Act to cut dangerous carbon dioxide pollution from power plants. In Wisconsin, the plan could prompt more coal plant retirements, and also expand much-needed clean energy job opportunities.

The final provision of the plan that directs the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon pollution has been met by opposition and outcry from Wisconsin Manufacturer’s & Commerce (WMC) and others. But before we decide that the sky is about to fall in Wisconsin, we might want to check the facts. While we all know the fuel is free for wind and solar, Wisconsin continues to spend $12.5 billion each year to import fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. And as RENEW Wisconsin’s recent analysis has shown, Wisconsin’s current over-reliance on coal is a really raw deal for ratepayers. Wisconsin has the second-highest electricity rates in the Midwest, with projects like We Energies’ huge, pricey $2.3 billion 1,200 MW Elm Road coal plant in Oak Creek, leaving ratepayers on the hook for the project, regardless of how rarely it operates.

Truth be told, you don’t even need to believe in climate change to support expanding clean energy. Maybe you are just a member of the Georgia Tea Party, who has decided that they’ve had enough of the utility monopolies in their sunny state; or maybe you work for an insurance company who is concerned about the rising costs of climate change-related calamities.

Maybe you support the President’s plan because you question WMC’s assertions about renewables being linked to higher electricity costs. You know that the cost of installing solar systems has dropped by 27 percent in 2012, while at the same time, efficiency of solar technologies continues to improve. And you know that Iowa, which has 5,166 MW of installed wind capacity, already gets 25 percent of its electricity from wind, yet their rates are on average 20 percent lower than Wisconsin’s, with just 649 MW of installed wind. In fact, a 2012 report by Synapse Energy Economics showed that installing more wind energy could save Midwestern electrical customers $3 – $9.5 billion annually by 2020!

And what about the cost of doing nothing on climate change? Last year’s drought and heat wave, followed by relentless rain and flooding this year give us a glimpse of what climate change could cost Wisconsin in the future, from our farms to our forests to our cold-water fisheries.

Or maybe, you support the President’s plan because you just want to see Wisconsin create more family-supporting jobs. Clean-energy investments create 16.7 jobs for every $1 million in spending, while an equal investment in fossil fuels only creates 5.3 jobs. The wind industry already employs 75,000 people nationwide. Maximizing energy efficiency investments would create between 7,000 and 13,000 additional jobs. Wisconsin already has 135 companies working in the solar industry (and employs 119,000 nationwide), ranging from Cardinal Glass in Mazomanie to Helios in Milwaukee (manufacturing photovoltaic panels) to GreenSky Energetics (installing solar heaters and photovoltaic systems) in Manitowoc to H&H in Madison. And we know we’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of jobs we could create.

Although Wisconsin’s solar resource is superior to Germany, they had over 24,000 MW of installed solar, and over 250,000 people working in the renewable energy industry by the end of 2011. Germany has nearly as much installed solar capacity as the rest of the world combined and gets about 4 percent of its electricity from solar. Wisconsin has happily adopted Germany’s penchant for good beer. Why can’t we get on board with their forward-thinking energy strategy? In other words, do we really want to miss our chance to support local clean energy companies and cede ground to other states and countries as they surge ahead in the clean energy race?

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that environmentalists think President Obama can and should do even more to protect future generations from climate change. We were encouraged by his promise to deny the Keystone XL pipeline if it is found to make climate change worse. This project, along with other proposed tar sands pipeline expansion proposed for the Great Lakes region, would threaten water resources and lock us in to dirty tar sands oil that destroys boreal forests in Alberta and is 3x as energy intensive as conventional oil extraction methods.

And we were disappointed by parts of the President’s speech that suggest an ongoing dependence on natural gas. Beyond the price of the fuel, which won’t be cheap forever, we know that it comes at a high price when you consider the environmental damage caused by hydraulic fracking. Fracking has been linked to water contamination, and possibly even earthquakes in other states. Although Wisconsin doesn’t have natural gas, we do have the special type of sand that is used in fracking. As regulations rush to catch up with sand mining interests, we are seeing habitat loss, especially near the Mississippi River. We also saw six sand mine spills last year, including one that dumped sediment into the St. Croix River. Sand mining also requires huge amounts of water, and it can pollute drinking water with acrylamides. Impacts of the growing use of natural gas should also be considered along with the cost.

Obama concluded his speech by noting, “Someday, our children, and our children’s children, will … ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem?” When it comes to doing all you can do to fight climate change and reduce your dependence on dirty, destructive fossil fuels, how will you respond to your children and grandchildren?

Shahla Werner, Ph.D., is the director of the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club in Madison.

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