A Constituency to Combat Climate Change

Americans overwhelmingly believe global warming is happening and that the public and private sectors should do something about it.

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On Friday, the Obama Administration announced greenhouse gas emission limits on new power plants. We applaud this development and appreciate the meaningful step forward it provides.

Much of the conversation about this progress concerns coal-fired power plants, the capacity to capture and store carbon from coal and the jobs accompanying the coal industry. As members understandably advocate for the energy and job welfare of their districts, what is missing in the current debate is the constituent voice and the economics of curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

First, let's remember that our constituents overwhelmingly believe global warming is happening and that the public and private sector should do something about it. Take a look at what the Yale and George Mason Centers for Climate Change Communication published this month regarding constituent opinion across the country.

In Ohio, for example, more than 70 percent of this critical swing state believes that global warming is happening. Furthermore, a majority of Ohioans think it is happening primarily due to human activities. This is incredible. This is Ohio, the heartland of America.

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This should be a sign for any 2016 candidate keen to curry favor with this Midwestern state that doing something about climate change is increasingly an election issue. The Ohioan majority wants elected officials to do something about climate change, and they want corporations and industry and the American citizenry to do something too.

Why? Because they see the problem getting worse, not better, for their children and their children's children. Large majorities of Ohioans say that over the next 50 years, climate change will cause more heat waves, worse storms, declining numbers of fish and native wildlife, droughts and water shortages, increased allergies, asthma, infectious diseases or other health problems and more power outages in the state. They understand the risks at stake.

So do New Yorkers. The fact that in one short week in 2011 in the Capital Region we had record flooding, a hurricane, a tropical storm, a tornado and an earthquake, should speak to us. And if that doesn't, Hurricane Sandy's impact should. And we cannot afford to simply build our infrastructure back as we had before. We must build smarter and better. After all, Americans rightfully expect a smart, effective government response to these disasters.

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Solving climate impacts and economic growth are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the return on investment for clean energy is undoubtedly higher than the status quo given that taxpayers do not have to foot the environmental, health and security bills that come with the makeup of existing fuels.

Costing out the U.S. expenditures that come with air pollution, sea and land-based environmental clean-ups, severe storm recovery or overseas conflicts associated with resource access and control, clean energy's all-in costs are competitive and oftentimes lower than legacy stationary energy sources.

The jobs that come with renewable energy, furthermore, are much more localized, much more flexible and better suited to rejuvenate towns across America. This is something that many legacy fuels are unable to do.

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Colorado is on board with taking on climate change too, according to Yale-GMU's September survey, with three in four Coloradans saying that the issue of global warming is very or somewhat important to them personally, and six in 10 Coloradans saying they're at least somewhat worried about it. This is no surprise given Colorado's decreased snowpack, exacerbated wildfires, and increased droughts.

The majority of the state understands that global warming is contributing to all of this and more and roughly half of the state's residents are now saying that they've personally experienced global warming's effects. It is touching people's lives in a very real way, which is why the same number of Coloradans wants more progress from their state government.

Second, what's most telling in all of this data is what a majority of Coloradans already understand, that switching from fossil fuels to clean energy sources would increase, not undermine, economic growth and the number of jobs.

This is how towns across American can exploit economic opportunities and prosper, by building the solar, wind, biomass and other types of clean energy that can harness local sources, not merely in the short-term, but in the long-run too. That is how you democratize energy and rebuild this country. The American people want it and it is past time we listened to them.

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko represents New York’s 20th Congressional District and serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Michael Shank, Ph.D., is Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

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