The First Step Is The Hardest

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By Billy Parish
The House recently passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), an important step toward protecting our environment and building a clean energy economy.

ACES has generated a lot of strong opinions, for and against, especially in the environmental community. Now I’m not a scientist or a policy wonk, but I did help start and run the Energy Action Coalition, the largest youth clean energy organization in the country, and following the debate over the 1,200-page proposal has been confusing, even for me.

Al Gore calls the proposal, “one of the most important pieces of legislation ever introduced in Congress.” Yet, NASA’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, says “I hope cap and trade doesn’t pass, because we need a much more effective approach.”

In an open letter to the president and members of Congress, 20 of the top climate scientists in the country wrote “at its best it will be only a first step” and “call attention to the large difference between what U.S. politics now seems capable of enacting and what scientists understand is necessary to prevent climatic disruption and protect the human future.”

I deeply respect individuals on both sides of the debate and in the end, I believe both sides are right.

The science, at least, is pretty clear. The safe upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million (ppm). Right now, we’re at 389 ppm and climbing. In its current form, ACES will not take us below 350. Most agree with that. On the other hand, the latest study by the Congressional Budget Office reports that ACES will create 1.7 million new jobs and save consumers over $22 billion in 2020 alone.  According to the Center for American Progress, by 2020 it will have the same effect on global warming as removing 500 million cars from the road. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

So I’m looking forward, not back. Ultimately our goals should be to avert a climate crisis and build a vibrant clean energy economy. Does ACES bring us closer to reaching that goal? Yes. Will it bring us there on its own? Most certainly not. So, with those goals in mind, let’s look at three keys to moving forward.

First, we need to strengthen ACES as much as possible before it becomes law. The oil and coal industries have spent big to weaken the proposal. In just the first three months of 2009, these companies spent $79 million lobbying Congress. They’ve bought access and worked against the interests of the American people.

We need to strengthen ACES to ensure that it truly delivers the clean energy job creation promised by strengthening the Renewable Electricity Standard in the proposal. A better bill will also preserve the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon emissions through the Clean Air Act, a critical tool for the president to ensure the necessary emissions reductions.
Second, we need to see ACES as the foundation of good national and international climate policy, not the final product. To truly jumpstart a clean energy economy, we need a range of complementary policies. President Obama has already had some success in this area, most notably with the increase in fuel-economy standards.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to create a spirit of national purpose to face this challenge.  If anyone in this country has proven able to inspire us to fully engage with our civic and moral responsibilities, it’s President Obama. I hope it’s his leadership – rather than another devastating storm or an oil shock – that helps the nation re-focus on the urgency for action.

Parish, age 27, is the founder of the Energy Action Coalition, a national youth clean energy coalition.


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