When President Obama called for Congress to "pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change" in his State of the Union Address, adding that he'll use his executive authority to act if Congress won't, legislative handicappers would be excused if they scratched their heads. After all, didn't opponents of climate action decisively block legislative progress over the past four years?
To a number of governors and mayors from both major political parties, leaders in the renewable energy and auto manufacturing industries, and hundreds of thousands of workers who are participating in the rapidly expanding clean energy economy, the president's renewed commitment is no surprise. Neither is it a shock to the millions of Americans who have recently experienced costly climate-related destruction.
Three primary developments over the last few years are likely driving the president's assessment that the economics and politics of climate change have evolved sufficiently to create an opening for national action.
Americans are now connecting the dots
First, Hurricane Sandy's devastating destruction and loss of life, resulting from storm surges made worse by climate-change accelerated sea level rise, were an exclamation point to several years of worsening extreme weather felt by millions of people. The "devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms" that the president described in his inaugural speech affected millions of Americans in 2012, a year of record heat.
Americans in nearly every region now have direct and costly experience with climate change. Polls show that clear majorities want their elected officials to take action to lessen the threat.
Economic gains are adding up
The second development: measurable economic gains in the automobile manufacturing and electricity production industries resulting from a combination of technological advances and forward-looking public policies.
Policies like the renewable electricity standards now adopted by 29 states, federal renewable energy tax credits, and targeted stimulus investments by the Obama administration provide powerful incentives. The industry's engineers and designers have found ways to get more electricity output from wind farms. And the cost of generating electricity from wind projects has declined by more than 20 percent over the past two years and more than 80 percent since 1980.
As a result, the installed wind capacity in the United States has more than tripled over the past five years to 59 gigawatts while the industry has injected more than $85 billion of private capital investment into our economy and now employs 75,000 people.
And a bonus has been a striking boost in home-grown manufacturing. In 2005, only 35 percent of the wind turbines, towers, blades and other components installed domestically was U.S.-built. Today, nearly 70 percent are made in America at nearly 500 manufacturing facilities in 44 states.
Manufacturers are locating their plants in states that have put out welcome mats with supportive policies or have strong wind resources such as Colorado, where 6,000 people are employed making wind turbines and towers, and Iowa, which today generates more than 20 percent of its electricity needs from wind.
Stylish American-built hybrids are selling
Our domestic auto industry can tell a comparable story. After leaders of U.S.-based auto companies committed, in negotiations with the first-term Obama administration, to ambitious increases in the efficiency of the vehicles they build, they quickly began offering more choices of efficient vehicles in showrooms. American consumers are responding by buying new stylish options such as the Ford Fusion Hybrid and the Lincoln MK3 Hybrid.
That success is reverberating throughout the economy. Alcoa is spending $300 million to expand its aluminum factory in Davenport, Iowa, adding 150 construction jobs and 150 permanent jobs because automakers are ordering more lightweight vehicle materials.
Growing support in red and purple states
The third development: the economic benefits of transitioning to a low-carbon economy are transcending political boundaries. The American Wind Energy Association found that 81 percent of U.S. wind power installations are in congressional districts represented by Republicans. The majority of state renewable electricity standards were signed into law by Republican governors, including President Bush when he was governor of Texas, which today has the most installed wind power generation of any state.
Republican Govs. Sam Brownback of Kansas, John Kasich of Ohio and Terry Branstad of Iowa, among others, are strong proponents of renewables, as are Republican Sens. Michael Crapo and Charles Grassley of Iowa, Pat Roberts of Kansas and John Thune of South Dakota, as renewable energy projects have helped their states' economic recovery through the deep recession. This growing bipartisan support helps explain the recent inclusion of the wind production tax credit extension in the fiscal cliff deal.
We know from this impressive track record that designing market-based clean energy policies that attract bipartisan support can be a powerful tool in addressing climate change while building a future-oriented economy. The president appears to sense that support is growing for even bolder action.
Kevin Knobloch is president of the Union of Concerned Scientists based in Cambridge, Mass.