04/28/2014 05:10 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2014

Don't Undervalue Importance of Co-benefits

I recently led a conversation with the European Union (EU) Commissioner for Climate Action on U.S. and EU climate change policies. I was impressed by the bold policies being undertaken by the EU, and their aggressive goals aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80-95 percent by 2050. But, what really grabbed my attention was the difference between the current policy dialogue here in the U.S. and the prevailing dialogue in the EU on climate change. As Americans, we have traditionally been the optimists sporting the "can-do" attitude. But when it comes to addressing climate adaptation and resiliency, we seem to be more "can't do" than "can-do." The EU takes a different approach to climate change, particularly by valuing "co-benefits" of action. By taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they realize opportunities and benefits to their citizens, both in the near and long term. These co-benefits should not be undervalued here in the U.S.

For example: Deploying renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies provides hundreds of thousands of new domestic jobs, reduces air pollutants, diversifies energy supplies, reduces energy bills for individuals and businesses, and improves overall energy security. At a time when both parties in Congress claim job creation as our top priority -- it's certainly the largest concern I hear back home in the Capital Region of New York -- Republicans and Democrats should be able to unite in harnessing the potential for job growth while we work with businesses to responsibly reduce greenhouse gases. And make no mistake about it, the science is clear, these are the gases that are directly responsible for the challenges we face with extreme and changing weather in the U.S. and around the world.

The EU views climate change from both sides of the balance sheet. We are only emphasizing costs of action. However, there are also tremendous costs for inaction. Severe storms, coastal flooding, and intensified droughts all create significant private and public costs. Acting now to slow the rate of change will protect the sick and elderly from deadly heat waves; shelter our food and water resources from price spikes resulting from droughts; mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events; safeguard and preserve our infrastructure; and preserve our coastlines and landscapes for our children and grandchildren. All of these co-benefits have the added effect of lowering bills related to health care, food, infrastructure repair, and social and economic disruption.

Finally, bringing down these emissions has the co-benefit of ensuring the long-term fiscal health of our nation. By investing now, we will create a culture of entrepreneurs and small businesses that are able to compete in a global race on clean energy and innovation. In so doing, we create jobs and develop the workforce of the future. Instead of importing this new technology, we will be the epicenter of invention and innovation. As the U.S. did during the Space Race, we must invest in our businesses and intellect to ensure America leads the clean energy economy of the future. As we all know, the best way to reduce our deficit and bring down our debt is by putting Americans back to work.

Many climate change deniers would have you believe that addressing climate change is all pain and no gain. This is simply not true. We can tackle this challenge while improving our personal health and the health of our economy. These are not competing interests; they go hand in hand. We've done it before in tackling acid rain, the ozone layer, and many other great challenges. But as the latest IPCC report highlights, we cannot wait or continue a farcical debate about the impact of climate change. Climate change is real and the time to take action to avoid significant costs and to receive these co-benefits is now.

My colleagues and I stand ready to take on the challenges of a robust and ambitious emission reduction plan -- and we stand ready to work with the United States Senate, the White House, and our Republican colleagues in the House. But not all of the work can be done by the federal government. In the wake of Earth Day 2014, I'd like to challenge each of us to view our changing climate in terms of what we stand to gain by taking action. The IPCC has made it clear that climate change is impacting all of us, on every continent. I'm confident that valuing "co-benefits" and harnessing our uniquely "can-do" American attitude and ingenuity will empower us to be the global kingpin of the clean energy economy.

Paul D. Tonko (NY-20) is Co-Chair of the Sustainable Energy and the Environment Coalition (SEEC) and is a member of the Safe Climate Caucus. He is also a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, where he serves as the Ranking Member of the Environment and Economy Subcommittee.

This post is part of a series from the Safe Climate Caucus. The Caucus is comprised of 38 members of the House of Representatives who have committed to ending the conspiracy of silence in Congress about the dangers of climate change. For more information, visit the Safe Climate Caucus website and like the Safe Climate Caucus on Facebook.