Yes We Can Stop Global Warming (Without Giving Away the Store)

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Margie Alt Executive director, Environment America

I have enormous respect for Senator Kerry, his perspective and his incredibly hard work to craft a bill in the U.S. Senate to deal with global warming. Especially impressive is his effort to build support across the aisle and from unlikely allies.

As Senators Kerry and Graham note we must move quickly and boldly to solve global warming. In fact scientists tell us we have less than a decade to act if we are to stave off the worst impacts of the problem.

The scramble for sixty Senate votes on a tight timeline in a steadily-warming world will require concessions to the politically powerful interests that have undue influence in the U.S. Senate; and to those representing especially carbon intensive parts of the nation. But there I part ways with the Senators. Rather than touting more investments in nuclear power and coal and more oil drilling as solutions, they should be acknowledged for what they are: political compromises.

In the chase for the 60th Senator, Senator Kerry and other leaders must ensure that a final bill actually creates the framework for a truly clean energy future, and does not become so diverted by accommodations and giveaways that the solutions we seek are in fact no closer tomorrow than they were today.

We can repower America with 100% clean energy. Our homes and offices can be super-efficient and create more energy from the sun and wind than they use. Each of us can get to school, to work, and to the grocery store on foot or bike, by public transit or in cars that get 150 miles to the gallon. We can reduce our dependence on oil, improve our national security, create jobs and improve the economy all while averting the worst impacts of global climate change. The U.S. Senate needs to set the nation squarely on the path toward this vision as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, the case made by Senators Kerry and Graham takes us off that track. Putting a price on carbon in its very essence gives a leg up to nuclear power. Thus nuclear interests including the Nuclear Energy Institute applauded the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed by the House in June. Exelon, which owns one-fifth of the nation's nuclear generating capacity, estimates that trading carbon permits could add $1 billion to its profits every year.

But nuclear power comes with incredibly high costs - higher than the many truly clean energy alternatives. Along with the health and environmental risks posed by nuclear waste and the increased potential of nuclear weapons development, every additional dollar spent on nuclear power diverts resources from cleaner, cheaper and safer alternatives.

Coal interests are pushing to spend hard-earned taxpayer dollars attempting to develop 'clean coal'. Although coal is plentiful in the U.S., mining coal is dirty and dangerous and can be devastating to miners as well as neighboring communities. No coal is clean.

So while we may eventually develop technologies that allow utilities to capture the CO2 they produce and store it underground such technologies remain unproven. There's a role for the federal government in helping to research and develop carbon capture and storage, but incentives for new coal plants must be irrevocably tied to capturing the global warming pollution they produce.

The oil industry and its allies are pushing for more drilling and in places that threaten our environment. We must remind ourselves about the Exxon Valdez accident and the oil spill off Santa Barbara as well as about the recent spill that continues to dump more than 400 barrels of oil a day off the Australian coast. Drilling off our shores is unnecessary for meeting our energy needs. In addition it imperils our beaches and marine life as well as the tourism economy so critical to coastal states from Florida up to Maine; Alaska down to California. And to state the obvious, more oil from offshore drilling also means more global warming pollution.

While pushing for a bill we can pass, we can't lose sight of the huge potential - only barely exploited - for a clean energy revolution. By tapping just the available energy efficiency opportunities that cost less than current energy sources, we could achieve a 26% reduction in global warming emissions by 2020. We'd save twenty times more energy per dollar invested in energy efficiency compared to the energy that might be generated with an equivalent investment in new nuclear power plants.

Truly clean energy - efficiency, increased clean transportation options, solar, wind and others - also means cleaner air, less polluted land and water, fewer threats to public health, cheaper and more reliable energy, huge numbers of green jobs and increased energy security. Action by local and state governments are already proving this case time and again as are the green investments being made thanks to the stimulus bill passed earlier this year.

I laud Senators Kerry and Graham for acknowledging that global climate change is the issue of our generation and that we must act now. I'm no Pollyanna; I fully acknowledge that winning a bill in the U.S. Senate in the next year means accepting some political compromise. But any bill we pass must head us in the right direction. It must at least launch the clean energy revolution that will save both our environment and our economy and re-establish us as technological leaders in the world.

The bill passed by the House moved in this direction. The draft bill Senators Kerry and Boxer put forward recently does the same and deserves our support. But as we work vigorously toward passing a bill in the Senate, it is critical that we level with ourselves and the American public about what the bill does and what the risks are of the compromises we make. And as we work diligently with Senator Kerry and others to build the public support and find those last few Senate votes, we must not lose sight of the cleaner, healthier, economically and environmentally sound energy future we seek to create.