Climate Change is a Looming Threat: Time to Fix Our Fragile Energy Infrastructure

NBC’s new science fiction drama Revolution is set in a world that 15 years after the start of a worldwide blackout. This post-apocalyptic future shows how the lack of a preparation for a blackout led to ultimate chaos and governments collapsing. As much as I enjoy post-apocalyptic science fiction thrillers, this hits close to home. Threats to our energy infrastructure are a real concern. Back in 2003, a software bug at a control room of the FirstEnergy Corporation in Ohio caused a widespread power outage throughout parts of the Northeast and Midwest. The blackout affected an estimated 55 million people in Canada and the US. Power, water, transportation, and communications were all impacted.

Troubling news. It can happen again. This time severe weather influenced by climate change is now increasing the risk of that occurring. In 2012, for example, storm surge and high winds from Hurricane Sandy downed power lines, flooded electrical substations, and damaged several power plants and ports, according to DOE, leaving over 8 million people without power.

A recent government report by the independent Government Accountability Office presented troubling findings on how climate change can threaten the America’s core energy infrastructure. The study shows that “U.S. energy infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to a range of climate change impacts—particularly infrastructure in areas prone to severe weather and water shortages.” They examined how it could affect our infrastructure in four main ways: (1) resource extraction and processing infrastructure, (2) fuel transportation and storage infrastructure, (3) electricity generation infrastructure, and (4) electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure.

GAO blog chart 3.23.14

Luckily, the GAO reports that measures exist to help reduce these climate-related risks. Hardening and resiliency measures would adapt the US’s energy systems to weather and climate-related impacts. Hardening measures involve physical changes that improve that stability of infrastructure, whereas resiliency measures allow energy systems to continue operating after damage and allow for a quick recovery. Whether it be sealing water-sensitive equipment or installing back-up generators, there are things that can be done.

Key federal entities can play important supporting roles that can influence private companies’ infrastructure decisions. The government can influence companies’ decision through providing information, regulatory oversight, technology research and development, and market incentives and disincentives.

A wide range of studies have shown that U.S. energy infrastructure is at risk for damage and disruptions to service due to severe weather events. The damage from this could impose large costs on the energy industry, as well as influence the local and national economies.

One thing is for sure. More can be done, and needs to be done.

Latinos and the Environment: Time to Retool the Republican Party

The GOP continues to wander in a desert of its own creation regarding how to reach out to Latinos.  The most recent episode is an apparent decision by its U.S. House leadership to bow to extreme elements in the party and call off its on-again-off-again courtship of bipartisan immigration legislation.  At some point Republicans need to accept that rebuilding their relationship with Latino voters requires pursuing issues that Latinos care about.

A dramatic example surfaced in recent polling by NRDC regarding the strong support by Latinos for action on climate change and protection of the environment generally. Latinos polled overwhelmingly came out in favor of tackling air pollution, addressing climate change, and using renewable energy, among many other pro-environmental positions. As my colleague Adrianna Quintero has written, Latinos understand specifically the threat from climate change to their families and communities and they want action against this threat.  These data are consistent with other polling results from political swing states during the 2012 election season (see infographic below).

In the wake of very bad election results in 2012, Republicans commenced some serious soul-searching about what their future holds. Some argue that the losses are due to candidates being too extreme while others assert too many were too moderate.  In its assessment of the path forward for the party, the Republican National Committee gave particular emphasis to appealing to a more diverse range of Americans, including our country’s quickly growing ethnic minority groups.

The crux of the argument in favor of seeking a broader appeal has focused on the nation’s changing demographics, specifically the need to appeal to a growing Latino population. Many conservatives seem to believe that immigration reform is the answer to winning over Latinos. However, as various pundits have already stated, moderation and problem-solving on the immigration issue may not be sufficient to bring Latinos into a tent that is not otherwise welcoming to them.

If it wants to succeed in a changing America, the Republican party must remake itself. In doing so, it will have to appeal to key groups on issues of importance to them.  Latinos support action on climate change with an exceptional intensity. In fact, polling specialist Latino Decisions has observed that only the issue of immigration reform provokes a more impassioned response from the Latino community. With that in mind, embracing the concern of Latinos for protecting health and addressing climate change could be a good starting point.

Latino infographic 2.11.14


It’s a Fact.

I just finished watching State of the Union.  President Obama gave his laundry list to Congress and then reminded lawmakers that if they can’t get their act together, he will move forward without them to make progress.

If you are an environmentalist who watched the speech, you undoubtedly found things you liked and disliked, but we can all embrace the President’s direct aim at climate deniers.

Check out his language from the 2010 State of the Union:

“I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change.”

Tonight’s statement was much more direct:

“Climate change is a fact.”

We couldn’t agree more. Now is the time for candidates to follow President Obama’s lead by being direct in our need to address climate change.

Extensive polling shows voters all across America are ready to act on climate by reducing carbon pollution. And candidates who chose to “run clean” in 2012 not only won, but laid out a roadmap for why it’s not just good policy, but good politics.

We have a moral obligation to act so we can leave the world a better place for our children and our children’s children.

The debate is over.

“And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”

President Obama, 2014 State of the Union Address


New Year’s Resolution

Intro look at why 2014 is so important and how the enemies of climate science are real and not giving up. We can’t fight them dollar for dollar, but we have voters on our side.

Resolving to Combat $1 Billion Per Year

The December 20 headline screamed, “Conservative groups spend up to $1bn a year to fight action on climate change.” It’s not exactly the “happy new year” message that a clean energy professional likes to hear as she looks ahead to the dawn of an election year. I always like to think that the environmental community is sort of small and mighty, but one billion dollars sure is daunting. Luckily, it’s the season of hope, of possibility and of resolutions — and I know that our clean energy activists are resolved in their commitment to address climate change.

The headline referred to a new study, published in the journal Climatic Change, which looked at the funding of “91 think tanks, advocacy groups and industry associations which have worked to block action on climate change.” Over the course of the 8 years studied, the groups received about $900 million per year. While some of that funding may have been directed to other non-climate projects, many of those dollars went directly to fund activities like skeptics conferences and witch hunts and insults against climate scientists and to pay the salaries of climate deniers who could spout anti-climate change talking points to cable news pundits.

It would be easy to feel discouraged by seeing the numbers laid out in black and white. And I won’t pretend that these billions haven’t had an impact – inaction in Congress is evidence that they’ve had some success. There’s no question that we can’t compete dollar for dollar with these denying billionaires. But, they can’t seem to penetrate the place that really matters: the brains of American voters. Despite their billions, Americans persist in accepting the science and favoring action. For example, one recent poll found that three of five Americans say global warming is a very serious global problem, and two of three say it will hurt future generations either a lot or a great deal if nothing is done to reduce it. Even in deep red states, Americans support action to address climate change.

It’s a new year and it’s an election year. The deniers have failed to turn the public against climate science. But we have yet to fully succeed at mobilizing the public that so strongly supports climate action. I know many people would say that New Year’s resolutions are meant to be broken. But, we just can’t afford to let this one go. My resolution for 2014 is to make sure that every politician in America understands what their voters believe and to make sure they vote and campaign accordingly. Will you help us?

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2013 In Review: It Could Have Been Worse

So 2013 is nearly done.  On the political scene it’s easy to hope that the door gives the year a good whack on the way out.  But as we take a final look back on the environmental front, there’s a lot for which we should be grateful– especially if you take into consideration the things that didn’t get worse.

The Obama administration should be congratulated for the big step it took last summer in its commitment to fight climate change. Following on the heels of the landmark 2012 rule by the Obama administration to require automakers to vastly increase the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks, President Obama announced his commitment to take further action on climate change and avoid, as the President put it, condemning “future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.” A particularly significant feature of the President’s climate action plan is its stated goal to establish carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. If done right, these standards could have an enormously positive impact on public health and would be a momentous victory in the fight to control climate change.

Another important climate item in 2013 was something that didn’t happen. Namely, the Obama administration did not approve TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. While it remains to be seen whether the administration will eventually approve the counterproductive project, the President’s skepticism concerning the benefits of the pipeline and his commitment to evaluate its contribution of carbon to the atmosphere provides hope that the administration will scrap the misbegotten proposal altogether in favor of a cleaner energy future for America.

Also worthy of attention are the many staffing changes made in highly influential energy and environmental positions within the administration. Lisa Jackson left her post as EPA Administrator with an exceptional list of accomplishments, including adoption of air toxics standards that will save thousands of American lives every year. The Obama administration’s decision to replace Jackson with the highly capable Gina McCarthy serves as a sign of the administration’s continued commitment to climate and other crucial environmental protections.  A further proof of this continued commitment was demonstrated as the brilliant Dr. Stephen Chu was replaced at the Department of Energy by veteran climate policy leader and energy expert, Dr. Ernest Moniz.

Heather Zichal, former senior energy and climate adviser to the White House, departed too after the President’s unveiled his groundbreaking climate action plan.  Zichal helped orchestrate the development of this plan and should also be credited for the critical role she played in securing the vehicle fuel economy standards. Also announcing her departure was Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who can be proud of her accomplishments such as oversight of the creation of the first comprehensive National Ocean Policy.

The biggest item on the arrival side of White House staffing news is the addition of John Podesta, former Chief of Staff to President Clinton and previously a board member of the NRDC Action Fund. Podesta will be serving as senior counsel to president Obama and, considering his work in making climate change one of the top priorities of the think tank he founded after leaving the Clinton Administration, his return to the White House is an exciting prospect for the administration’s increased activity on climate change in the coming year.

Any review of 2013 would be remiss if it failed to discuss Congressional activity, or lack thereof.  There was at least a bipartisan budget deal, but otherwise Congress remained largely ineffectual. This meant that progress on the environment was left almost entirely up to action by the executive branch even as the administration fended off persistent attacks by climate deniers in Congress.

Hope persists that an eventual legislative agreement can be reached to update the federal law (the Toxics Substances Control Act, or TSCA) that regulates chemicals used in commercial and consumer products, but negotiations on a bill have stalled over how to set clear standards and deadlines that would actually make the law better than what exists now. Still, a good day in Congress is sometimes defined as doing no harm, and so it was good that bad environmental laws were kept off the President’s desk, and sneak attacks on the environment through unrelated provisions in other bills (termed “riders”) were mostly avoided.

Another topic that warrants discussion is the ongoing internal debate within the national Republican party. Following the party’s defeat in the last Presidential election, the Republican National Committee commissioned an assessment of the root causes of their underperformance. This report emphasized the party’s need to reach out to minorities, to alter their stance and messaging on immigration, and to pay greater attention to generational issues in order to remain relevant and competitive in elections moving forward.

Despite these recommendations, the Republican Party has retained a reputation as ideologically exclusive and controlled by extremists. This fall’s extended government shutdown is a perfect example of the Republicans’ increased isolation from mainstream opinion, as most Americans held an unfavorable view of the shutdown because it hampered the ability of federal agencies like the EPA to do their jobs protecting us.

The party’s unfortunate fate when it’s outside the political mainstream was evident in state races this past fall. In Virginia, the more conservative a Republican candidate for statewide office was, the worse he performed in his election – and Ken Cuccinelli’s views on climate change in particular were used to help define him as an extremist. Alternatively, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie took a more reasonable stance on climate change  and other issues, and subsequently won re-election in a landslide in a “blue” state.

So the administration’s commitment to action on climate change and the possibility that more reasonable, bipartisan cooperation will return to Congress in not a bad place to start for 2014.  Certainly 2013 set a standard of performance that our leaders should be expected to exceed.  Here’s hoping they exceed it by a lot.