In his second inaugural address, President Obama committed us to get back to work on the challenge of a sustainable energy future. "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," he said. But will this reignite the debate on climate change or have three widely publicized stories already done that for us?
Data shows that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the U.S., starting last March with a heat wave in parts of the nation that kick-started a severe drought in our most productive farmlands. Of course one hot year does not make a trend, but in the past 15 years, we have experienced the 10 warmest years on record, which must count as a trend to even the most skeptical among us.
This trend has amply illustrated that ignoring climate change is more costly than dealing with it. The drought covered more than 60% of the country as a third of us experienced at least 10 days of temps over 100 degrees, sending electricity bills through the roof for many. And, as corn and soybean crops failed, prices for those commodities also jumped, causing many other food prices to rise dramatically as a direct result.
The second major wake-up call was the National Climate Assessment, written by over two hundred scientists under a law that mandates an update of these trends every four years. That report found, among other costly consequences if we fail to act, that thirteen US airports have runways that are likely to be inundated by sea level rise and more intense storms - - like Hurricane Sandy, which is estimated to cost some $60 billion to insurers and taxpayers.
The last of these three warnings comes from China, where recent measurements of air quality are, well…breathtaking. The USEPA index of air quality runs from zero to 500 indicating air that is somewhere between clean and hazardous. Recent levels in Beijing topped 700. In addition to lung cancer and asthma, the cost of which is increasing annually around the globe, scientists are learning more about the warming effects of "black carbon"—the soot that blankets cities like Beijing, Los Angeles, and Houston—in addition to the more well-known climate pollutants like CO2 and methane.
"But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it," the President went on to say. "We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks."
Yes, a clean environment, improved public health, lower costs from cleaning up after droughts and more intense storms, and a growing economy are all possible by focusing on the solutions to this one issue. Solutions that are largely simple and save money.
For example, I met recently with officials of the Portland city schools who told me that they replaced many of their oil-fired boilers and will now save some $2 million a year on energy costs. And in Seattle, the world’s greenest commercial building is under construction. According to Climatec, which will manage and monitor the energy use of the 50,000 square foot Bullitt Center, this building will be self-sufficient for energy and water, putting no new demand on grids or water supplies. In addition to saving money and reducing carbon pollution, both of these projects are creating jobs that can’t be outsourced to China or India.
These examples suggest a profound transformation is already underway, regardless of where we find the motivation. "We must lead it." Four simple words that, if heeded, can be more powerful than partisan politics or climate change itself.