Per Capita Davis: Obama takes the lead on climate challenge

By From page A5 | July 05, 2013

It was back in 1990 when Bruce Springsteen first sang the song “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” I remember when it came out. I thought it was both hilarious and true. So much garbage on TV. I feel much the same way today, except that now, if one is willing to pay for them, there are hundreds of stations.

It seems that almost anything that happens on the planet is captured by camera and can become part of the news. But somehow the networks and people who choose from among all these possible stories focus on the disaster of the day, the bad accident, the terrible crime, the child who fell down a well or the regular citizen who performed a heroic act.

So it was with little surprise that I heard that President Obama’s speech on climate change at Georgetown University on June 25 was not broadcast on any of the major stations. Actually, it apparently was featured on one station: the Weather Channel.

With partisan gridlock foreclosing any progress on this issue in Congress one might think that a president taking matters into his own hands on such a crucial issue would be big news. No such luck. So, in case you didn’t happen to be watching the Weather Channel that day, I’m taking advantage of the massive circulation of The Davis Enterprise to describe the speech and spread the news. Of course, it’s also viewable at www.georgetown.edu.

The president framed his speech as a “Climate Challenge.” He briefly noted that the effects of climate change (increased ocean temperature, loss of arctic sea ice, sea level rise and higher global average temperatures) are no longer theoretical, they are with us now, and 97 percent of the scientific community acknowledges and accepts that the planet is getting hotter and humans are responsible for a huge part of that.

He also pointed out that whenever it was proposed that the environment could be protected without ruining the economy (Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, mpg standards for cars, preventing CFCs from destroying the ozone, etc.), the response of special interests has been to forecast doom and gloom for the economy and jobs. But the lesson of history is that the naysayers have always been wrong. The president urged: “Don’t fear the future; seize it.”

Obama outlined his “Climate Challenge” in six parts covering three basic themes: use less dirty energy, build more clean energy and use energy more efficiently.

First, regulate carbon pollution from new and existing power plants, the single largest source of our emissions. He pointed out that the Clean Air Act, enacted in 1970, was passed unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 375-1 in the House of Representatives and was signed into law by a Republican president, Richard Nixon. More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate it.

Second, increase production and use of natural gas as a “transition fuel” to bridge to a longer term goal (see below). It was at this stage of his speech that he dropped the bombshell that approval of the Keystone pipeline from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico would require a finding that it did not substantially exacerbate the problem of climate change. Articulation of this standard was (is) big news.

Third, increase the use of renewable energy sources for electrical power. Specifically, the president proposed: green-lighting photovoltaic projects on federal land to provide enough electricity for 6 million homes by 2020; generating 3 gigawatts of electricity from solar installations on military bases; and asking Congress to end tax breaks for oil companies, instead directing those funds to development of renewables.

Fourth, improve the efficiency with which we currently use energy by increasing building and appliance efficiency standards and mpg requirements for vehicles. The president set a goal of reducing energy use in federal buildings and vehicles by at least 20 percent by 2020. In a separate recent announcement, the federal government indicated it will double the number of hybrid vehicles in its fleet to 20,000, thereby saving a million gallons of fuel per year.

Fifth, acknowledge that the effects of climate change are with us now, and will continue to be no matter how many or how strong our mitigation efforts. The president pledged to prepare for these effects through various “adaptation” measures, including requiring that all federally funded projects incorporate responses to sea level rise, increased temperature, etc.

Sixth, Obama noted that the United States can’t solve the climate challenge itself; other countries also must do their part. Along these lines, he indicated that it was time to end public subsidies for financing coal plants in other countries, which knew this was happening in the first place.

Finally, he described his commitment to the issue by stating, “I don’t have patience for those who deny the problem. We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.”

He concluded by urging citizens to get involved, to speak up at public meetings, and to make responding to climate change a condition of their vote for elected officials.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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