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At the Crossroads: Floods, Fires and Another Teachable Moment

02/02/2011 03:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Like the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the extreme weather events occurring worldwide offer a teachable moment on the need to address climate change. Here is the speech I would love to see President Obama give in a special session of Congress, perhaps on Earth Day next April 22, or sooner.

The setting: In a major departure from protocol, several guests take seats behind the President, alongside Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker John Boehner. They are Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu; NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco; the President's principal science advisor, Dr. John Holdren; NASA's Dr. James Hansen; and two scientists from the private sector - Dr. Rosina Bierbaum, a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and coauthor of the World Bank's 2010 World Development Report, and Dr. Robert Correll, head of the U.S. office of the Global Energy Assessment. Taking a seat next to them is Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in full uniform.

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans:

In my State of the Union address 3 months ago, I called this America's Sputnik moment. I proposed that by 2035, we obtain 80 percent of our energy from clean technologies. I talked about how our genius for innovation is the key to the future of our country. Our economic security depends on it.

Tonight I want to talk as Commander and Chief, and as the chief executive officer of some of the world's most advanced scientific institutions. I will address another vital component of our security: our ability to ensure the health and welfare of the American people at home and to reduce conflicts abroad. I will address security in the context of a phenomenon that has become highly politicized, but should not be: the developing crisis of global climate change.

This issue is not new to science or to our national leaders. In 1964, the National Academy of Sciences issued a study that recognized the possibility of "inadvertent weather modification" caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson's Science Advisory Committee warned him that by the year 2000, there would be 25 percent more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the words of the Committee, the continued use of fossil fuels "will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate, not controllable through local or even national efforts, could occur."

Later that year, President Johnson issued a special message to Congress. "This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale," he said, "through a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels."

In the 1970s, the National Research Council issued two additional reports on global climate change. And in 1978, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Dr. Robert White, wrote that "industrial wastes, such as carbon dioxide released during the burning of fossil fuels, can have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future societies." Dr. White warned the economic and social impacts could be "ominous".

By 1979, our most respected scientists had become even more certain about this threat. The National Research Council at the National Academy of Sciences issued this conclusion: "The close linkage between man's welfare and the climate regime within which his society has evolved suggests that such climatic changes would have a profound impact on human society."

Findings like these led to the creation in 1988 of the largest scientific study ever undertaken by the international community: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC. As its work progressed, the IPCC concluded with an uncommon degree of scientific certainty that global climate change is real. Recent challenges about the Panel's work have led to several independent investigations that have not altered the IPCC's core conclusions.

The growing body of climate science also led to congressional passage of the National Energy Policy Act of 1988, with the intention of reducing greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. In 1992, with the advice and consent of the United States Senate, President George H.W. Bush signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - a treaty that obligates developed nations like ours to "take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof". Like other international treaties approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate and by the President, the Framework Convention has the force of law. It remains in effect today.

The federal government's obligation to act against climate change is found not only in treaty, but also in domestic laws approved with bipartisan support by past congresses and signed by past Presidents. Current law is unequivocal in its recognition that climate change is real, that it is a threat to our security and that we must act not only for our own benefit, but for the benefit of future generations of Americans. Unless and until those laws are changed, it is my obligation -- our obligation -- to respect and comply with them.

For example, the National Climate Program Act of 1978 leaves no doubt about climate change. In that act, Congress said: "Weather and climate change affect food production, energy use, land use, water resources and other factors vital to national security and human welfare."

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 leaves no doubt that it is the federal government's responsibility to help the nation mitigate climate change. In that act, Congress declared the federal government should "use all practicable means to the end that the Nation may fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations."

Contrary to predictions from some quarters that a transition away from fossil energy will ruin our economy, Congress also has been unequivocal in recognizing the dynamic benefits of clean energy. In Title 42, Chapter 152 of the U.S. Code, Congress said: "...increased energy production from domestic renewable resources would attract substantial new investments in energy infrastructure, create economic growth, develop new jobs for the citizens of the United States and increase the income for farm, ranch, and forestry in the rural regions of the United States."

In short, our national leaders over the last half-century not only have recognized our obligation to address global climate disruption; they have codified that obligation in the law of the land.

As we all know, this is a complicated issue. Climate change may seem too big a problem to solve. It may seem we have ample time to address it - that future generations can fix it. It may seem that the harsh weather we experienced last winter is proof the atmosphere is not warming. It may seem that a few degrees of atmospheric warming can't possibly matter; after all, we experience bigger temperature changes than that all the time.

But the overwhelming majority of the world's scientists tell us differently. A few degrees of atmospheric temperature change is the difference between an ice age and a tropical planet. Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado have concluded not only that climate change is already underway around the world - including here in the United States - but also that some of its adverse effects are irreversible, locked in for centuries.

Many of our distinguished retired and active military officers, along with the National Intelligence Council, warn that global climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels are serious threats to America's security - that climate change will cause more instability in the most volatile regions of the world. The result will be new strains on our military forces, new sacrifices by our young men and women in uniform, new pressures for defense spending and new recruiting opportunities for terrorists.

Some argue that as we struggle to get the economy back to full strength, we cannot afford to address these problems. The reality is, we can't afford not to. The cost of climate impacts to food production, public health, defense spending and damage from natural disasters will overwhelm us if we allow climate disruption to continue unchecked. We must be concerned not only about the national debt, but also about the carbon debt - the deferred obligation we are putting on future generations to pay for the consequences of our inaction today.

Scientists advise us that a few aberrations in weather are not proof of climate change - that climate change is revealed only in sustained weather patterns. Those patterns now are becoming apparent. It is not significant that last year was one of the warmest since global record-keeping began. However, it is significant that the last decade was the warmest in history.

I will leave it to climatologists to make their judgments about what is due to natural weather variations and what is due to climate change. But extreme events consistent with climate change are evident. Last year was the second-worst on record for natural disasters around the world. We saw devastating floods that put a fifth of Pakistan under water, killing nearly 2,000 people and affecting 20 million more. The floods jeopardized the stability of a nuclear-armed nation.

We saw unprecedented flooding in Australia where waters climbed 30 feet above flood level and forced 200,000 people to evacuate their homes. Here in the United States, Tennessee experienced flooding so severe last May that it was called "Tennessee's Katrina". Last winter, the northeastern United States was battered by blizzard after blizzard. The 20 inches of snow that paralyzed New York City last December was entirely consistent with predictions that climate change will cause extreme precipitation events year-round. And we remember the record-breaking snow, rain and flooding that hit Los Angeles just before Christmas last year, causing mudslides that buried homes.

Last July in Greece, wildfires engulfed rural land around Athens, a sequel to the fires that killed more than 50 people in 2007 and reached "biblical proportions" in August 2009. Last August, more than 550 fires raged out of control across Russia's steppes, bogs and forests, creating a 1,000-mile-wide smoke plume that could be seen from space. The fires killed more than 50 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

Heat records were set in 19 countries in 2010, the highest number on record for a single year. Record heat was blamed for killing 5,600 people in Russia. Carbon monoxide levels rose to 6.5 times the allowable level in Moscow and the city's daily death rate doubled. Temperatures reached 105 degrees in Beijing, 126.7 degrees in Kuwait, 111 degrees in Riyadh, and 129 degrees in Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan.

Temperatures broke 100 degrees in New York and Philadelphia, while Los Angeles recorded an all-time record of 113 degrees in September. In Houston, August was the hottest month in the city's history.

The world's leading reinsurance company, Munich Re, reported that 950 natural catastrophes took place in 2010, the highest number since the record was set in 1980. Nearly 300,000 people died from natural disasters of all types during the year; economic losses reached $130 billion, nearly triple the losses in 2009. Munich Re concluded that last year's extreme weather events "provide further indications of advancing climate change."

In short, we stand at the crossroads of two futures here in the United States and worldwide. One road leads to increasing disruption and damage, and escalating economic and military insecurity. I would call this the "business as usual" road, except the emissions we've already put in the atmosphere guarantee that business as usual no longer is an option, whichever road we take.

The second road takes us to a clean energy economy, to greater economic security, to fewer international tensions and resource conflicts, and to new industries and jobs. It takes us to a new American century of leadership and prosperity, and to a future we will be proud to leave to our children.

We know that all countries, including ours, will have to adapt to the climate disruptions that are inevitable because of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. The issue today is whether we will trigger tipping points that cause climate change to accelerate beyond our control. The second road is still open, if we choose it quickly. And I emphasize again: The choice is not a partisan issue. As one observer has put it, there is no Right or Left at this crossroads. There is only backward or forward.

In a moment, I will invite our distinguished guests from science and the military to give their perspectives on this historic challenge. But before I do, I'd like to offer a more concrete example of what our transition to clean energy can mean.

Bill Ritter, the former governor of Colorado, is with us tonight. Last January, he left office after four years of work to build a "clean energy economy" in his state. His efforts are not as well known as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's in California, but they deserve attention because when it comes to energy and climate, Colorado is a microcosm of the nation. It is rich in sunlight and wind as well as oil and gas, and it has begun its transition to a low-carbon economy.

With the help of a willing legislature, Ritter signed four dozen clean energy bills into law over four years. One requires the state's larger utilities to generate 30 percent of their electricity from wind and solar technologies by 2020, one of the highest standards of its kind in the nation. Another bill establishes the nation's first statutory plan to convert old coal plants to natural gas.

Xcel Energy, which serves 3.4 million electric customers across eight states, is working with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to close two conventional coal-fired power plants and replace them with renewable energy generation. Xcel already is operating the nation's first hybrid solar-coal power plant.

Due in part to the signals these policies send to industry and investors, Colorado has attracted 1,500 clean energy companies and has the fourth-highest concentration of clean energy workers in the United States. The state's clean tech sector has grown 16 percent and Colorado has become one of the nation's principal beneficiaries of venture capital for clean technology.

While much of the nation was concerned about the loss of manufacturing jobs to other countries, the Danish wind company Vestas established its North American manufacturing center in Colorado, building four factories that employ 2,500 workers. Six of the company's suppliers are expanding their operations in Colorado. SMA Solar Technology announced that Colorado will be the location of its first manufacturing plant outside Germany. Other renewable energy companies have announced plans to create hundreds more green jobs in the state this year.

Governor Ritter says Colorado's commitment to build an energy economy that "rewards imagination, innovation and ingenuity" is largely responsible for the fact that its unemployment rate has been two to three points below the national average during the recession.

The Colorado model must be our national model, including its demonstration of the progress that is possible when the legislative and executive branches work together. Tonight, I have submitted to Congress a National Energy Policy Plan designed to meet the goal of obtaining 80 percent of our energy from clean resources and technologies. I urge Congress again to phase out public subsidies of fossil energy to help pay for this transition. Oil, gas and coal are mature, well-financed industries. It is not necessary that they be wards of the state. It is time we invest in the emerging technologies we need for a low-carbon, high-opportunity society.

But let me be clear: While we must invest aggressively in research and innovation, we already have the know-how and technologies we need to begin the energy transition. What we have lacked for the last half-century is sufficient political will. The time to exert that political will is now. There is no more time to waste. This is not a position I have reached because of my political orientation or my philosophy of government; it is the conclusion of science, the result of physics and the advice of my national security team. Among our other responsibilities in public office, we have been elected to assess, anticipate and manage significant risks to the country's future, particularly in cases where states and the private sector cannot do the job alone. It is the right thing to do, the responsible thing to do, and the smart thing to do.

As I thought about this Earth Day, I weighed whether I should address climate change frontally and risk further polarization between those of us deeply concerned about the issue and those who have not yet recognized its reality. It is easier to talk only about clean energy, whose many benefits happen to include a major reduction in America's greenhouse gas emissions. But addressing climate change head-on is important for two reasons.

First, we must not try to avoid our moral responsibility as the nation most responsible for the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today, nor our responsibility to help the people of developing nations achieve peace and prosperity without adverse global impacts that hurt us all. We can call that enlightened self interest, but I believe great responsibility comes along with our nation's extraordinary blessings.

Second, we must not avoid the central lesson of climate disruption: We can no longer behave as though our species is separate from the natural world. The wisest people in our history have told us we are part of the web of life. For the past 200 years, fossil fuels and virtually unbridled development have allowed us to build the most prosperous nation on Earth. Now, those fuels and practices are ripping at the web, and we're getting a hard lesson in how connected to it we are. If we don't accept that lesson, we will continue ripping at the web in other ways to our detriment, even if we learn to live without carbon fuels.

The fact is, a different planet would get along fine without us. But we will not get along well on a planet considerably less hospitable than the one that has nurtured our species for so long.

We also are part of, and responsible to, the ecology of time. What we do today, more than any other point in human history, will profoundly affect the future of this great nation for many generations to come. We have an obligation not only to the generations ahead, but to all the men and women, from the Great Generation back to the Founders, who dreamed, worked, struggled, sacrificed and died to prove that a free society can be an enduring, responsible and sustainable society.

Now, I would like to invite Admiral Mullen to address us from the national security perspective, followed by Dr. John Holdren, my chief science advisor, who will introduce his distinguished colleagues and offer their perspectives on global climate change.

Thank you. God bless each of you and God bless the United States of America.

Bill Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP) at Natural Capitalism Solutions in Boulder, Colorado. Before launching PCAP in 2007, he worked on energy efficiency and renewable energy programs for 15 years at the U.S. Department of Energy. Among his other roles, he serves on the international Climate Change Task Force created and chaired by former Soviet President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mikhail Gorbachev. Parts of this post are excerpted from the conclusion of the report issued on Jan. 24 by the Presidential Climate Action Project.