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An Extreme Summer Shows Why We Need to Get Real About Climate Change

A version of this piece originally appeared in a special energy section of The Hill.

2011 was the summer of extreme weather— from the massive drought in the Southwest to record-breaking heat waves to Hurricane Irene’s torrential rains. Each of these events serves as a stark reminder of the growing impacts of climate change. Even so, the main recent discussion around climate change comes from Republican presidential candidates who have been debating the issue. Notably, Jon Huntsman recently Tweeted that he trusts scientists on global warming, adding “Call me crazy”– an invitation surely welcomed by some of his competitors. Many people are quick to point out that no individual weather event can be linked to climate change. But that misses the point. Climate is the pattern that emerges from a combination of all the individual weather events: the hurricanes, the droughts, and the beautiful summer days in between. These patterns are changing in significant ways, and making us more vulnerable when extreme events arrive. People across the country are recognizing the signs of climate change: the Texas farmer trying to grow wheat; the Chicago planner deciding where to build a bridge; and the Maine fisherman locating his next catch.

These extreme events are costly. According to NOAA, there have already been more than 10 individual weather-related disasters costing over $1 billion each in 2011 (as of August). The combined total cost of these events exceeds $35 billion. And this doesn’t even include Hurricane Irene, which damaged thousands of homes, isolated millions of people with record floods, left more than 9 million without power, and took over 40 lives.

Scientists have long understood that greenhouse gas emissions are the leading cause of climate change. Following a brief dip in 2009 due to the global recession, emissions worldwide rose again in 2010 reaching the highest levels ever recorded. Left unchecked, we should expect emissions to continue to rise, especially as developing countries— like China, India and Brazil— modernize and the global economy regains its strength.

So what can be done?

Even though the current political dynamics give little reason to expect significant Congressional action to address U.S. emissions in the next year or two, the United States still has opportunities to lower its emissions. As the World Resources Institute has shown, a combination of federal and state actions could put the United States within range of its commitment to cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020 (compared to 2005). We’ve had some movement in this direction.

Earlier this year, EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced plans for the next round of vehicle standards, which are projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks by 2 billion tons, saving 4 billion barrels of oil. These agencies also finalized greenhouse gas emissions standards for heavy duty trucks (e.g. tractor trailers) that will reduce emissions by 270 million tons, saving 530 million barrels of oil.

In addition, several states are also taking steps to reduce emissions, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (comprised of 10 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states), California, and several others. California, which represents one-eighth of the U.S. economy, is moving forward with its comprehensive economy-wide program to reduce carbon emissions. Another 10 states have emissions targets set by legislation; 29 states (plus Washington D.C.) have renewable portfolio standards ; and 14 states are developing low-carbon fuel standards

Another important step will be when EPA unveils its new greenhouse gas standards for the power sector, which accounts for around one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. As this announcement approaches, we will surely hear cries from some industries and associations claiming it will be too costly. But, as WRI and many others have noted before, industry groups have a history of exaggerating costs, while underestimating the benefits of environmental protections.

In fact, businesses can gain from knowing the rules of the road in a low-carbon future. Business leaders, such as Exelon’s John Rowe and Duke Energy’s Jim Rogers, among others, have long argued that greater certainty would benefit their strategic planning and operations. And, federal policies can help drive job creation through innovation and technological advancements, like wind turbines and next-generation batteries. Ultimately, however, it will likely take Congressional legislation to truly bring down emissions and unleash greater investment in renewables.

Right now, the United States is largely sitting on the sidelines as other countries take advantage of global clean energy markets. England, Germany, Japan and China have all recently announced ambitious plans to limit their emissions and increase low-carbon energy production. These countries are not mired in a debate about whether our climate is changing; they are taking action now. For elected officials in the United States, the message is clear: it is time to get real about climate change and embrace a low-carbon future.

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