Solving the Climate Crisis Will Strengthen Our Economy

05/08/2015 01:59 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

When I voted for the Clean Air Act as a Member of Congress in 1970, I received a stern warning from special interests: Environmental protection hurts economic growth. When I voted for the Clean Water Act in 1972, the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and the first federal fuel economy standards in 1975, the usual suspects were out in force with a familiar message: green regulations are just too costly. Today, following decades of environmental action, I'm proud to advocate for federal climate legislation and support President Obama's efforts to act on climate knowing that the evidence is in: Smart environmental standards boost innovation and strengthen our economy.

Our recent experience in Detroit is a case in point.

Five years ago, President Obama finalized the first new fuel-economy standards in two decades. Working hand-in-hand with the auto industry, the United Auto Workers, local officials in Michigan and others, the Obama Administration set strong but flexible rules to boost the fuel efficiency of new American cars from 27.5 mpg to 30.2 mpg in 2011 and up to 34.5 mpg in 2016.

Despite dire warnings from conservatives in Congress, the American auto industry has, over the last five years, created upwards of 250,000 new jobs, won countless worldwide car and truck of the year accolades, and led the world in efficiency innovations. Last year, Detroit churned out cars at a faster pace than at any time since 2005.

As Michael Porter, a widely-recognized expert on corporate strategy at Harvard Business School, has demonstrated, smart environmental regulations have boosted standards and economic outcomes in fields ranging from construction and appliances to electronics and computing. The logic is simple: Pollution means inefficiency, and government can play an important role in spurring action to reduce it.

This is an essential message for our times. Scientific authorities are nearly unanimous that carbon pollution from human activities has raised the planet's temperature by nearly one degree centigrade, and that we're now on track for a four or even five degree increase by the end of the century. This isn't just a problem for polar bears. It's a problem for cities dealing with the impacts of more frequent and intense storms like Hurricane Sandy; it's a problem for farmers and consumers dealing with the impacts of unprecedented water shortages like the California drought; it's a problem for people around the world dealing with rising risks of fires, floods, chronic lung diseases like asthma, and mosquito-borne illnesses that are showing up at higher latitudes as temperatures rise.

The notion that environmental protection can boost economic growth is crucial for another reason: We need new ways of creating quality jobs and livelihoods. While the official unemployment rate has fallen considerably since President Obama took office, more than six million jobless Americans are still not counted in the labor force or the official unemployment rate. Another 6.6 million Americans are working part-time because they cannot find full-time work. The official unemployment rate for African-Americans still stands at 9.6 percent and, in Detroit as well as struggling urban and rural corners of the country, data from the American Community Survey shows unemployment rates up to 25 percent.

We need a Green New Deal. This means the technologies that will save the planet -- renewables like wind and solar -- should receive the same kind of federal investment that fossil fuels received over the course of the last century. This means government should make smart investments in hiring people to develop new clean technologies, to retrofit buildings for greater efficiency, and to upgrade infrastructure to deal with inevitable effects of our changing climate. And this means putting a price on carbon so that polluters bear the true social cost of pollution rather than putting it on the public at large. I'm proud to join my colleague Chris Van Hollen as an original cosponsor of the "Healthy Climate and Security Act of 2015," which gradually sets a cap on the total amount of carbon pollution companies can generate, auctions carbon pollution permits to U.S. companies that sell oil, coal and natural gas, and returns 100 percent of the auction proceeds to every American with a Social Security number in the form of a quarterly "Healthy Climate Dividend." In short, this approach will restore the health of the planet while giving Americans more purchasing power. It's a win-win.

The special interests that sought to dissuade me from voting for the Clean Air Act more than 40 years ago are better organized and better funded than ever. That's why it will take a people-powered movement to finally act on climate and realize the rewards of a Green New Deal. This weekend, citizens, scholars and activists from around the country are meeting for a summit at the University of the District of Columbia to plan for a powerfully inclusive climate movement. It's free and open to the public. By taking action now, we can not only save our planet from catastrophe -- we can also create jobs with dignity.