Ditch dirty energy

During his State of the Union address, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to taking action to fight climate disruption. And in many respects, the president has already accomplished quite a lot: stronger fuel standards, increased energy efficiency, a doubling of solar and wind installations, curbing toxic pollution from coal plants, and beginning the process to establish carbon-pollution standards.

Unfortunately, as President Obama himself surely knows, when measured against what is actually necessary if we want to save our lands, forests, oceans, rivers, and children's future, those accomplishments still fall well short of the mark. That's not entirely his fault. He has challenges -- most notably a hostile Congress -- that are beyond his control.

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But the greatest failure of the president's approach to dealing with the climate crisis is nevertheless a self-inflicted wound: the insistence on an "all of the above" energy policy. While it's not factually wrong -- we will be using all available fuels for some years to come -- it fails to offer the guidance that will propel the U.S. toward a clean-energy economy. While "all of the above" may have worked as a re-election theme, it's not a responsible energy policy.

By definition, "all of the above" makes no distinction at all between the clean energy sources of the future and the dirty fuels that are disrupting our climate and threatening our world. For us to achieve real progress on energy and climate issues, we must base our energy policies on a practical and consistent standard of "clean before dirty."

What would such a standard mean for America?

"Clean before dirty" means holding polluters accountable for their pollution. We need protection from carbon, soot, smog, sulfur, water toxics, and coal ash from coal-fired power plants. We need more waters protected under the Clean Water Act. We need stronger federal standards and better science to protect water, air, and our climate from unproven technologies like fracking and other forms of oil and gas production.

"Clean before dirty" means rejecting proposals to import dirty fuels such as tar sands and stopping the rush to export coal, oil, and gas. We need to see consistent support for clean energy projects overseas.

"Clean before dirty" means rejecting fossil fuel projects that are more expensive and subject to unpredictable price hikes that families cannot afford. That's right, today, in many parts of the United States, new electricity generation options based on fossil fuels are more expensive than wind, solar, and increased efficiency.

"Clean before dirty" means protecting our public lands, water, and wildlife from reckless fossil fuel development and climate disruption. We need to stop the rush to expand oil and gas drilling, coal mining, and dirty fuels development on our public lands, while permanently protecting the most vulnerable and valuable lands while we still can.

Lastly and most importantly, "clean before dirty" means speeding the clean-energy revolution by opening innovative financing and investment avenues for energy efficiency and renewable energy, while also smoothing the path for environmentally responsible clean energy development on public lands and waters and within federal agencies. And let’s be clear: “environmentally responsible” means not throwing birds and other wildlife under the bus in some blind rush to hit the numbers. Siting, installation and operation of renewable energy projects must be done in ways that uphold the highest standards of protection for wildlife and great American landscapes.

It's only fair to acknowledge that the president has made some progress on most of these fronts during the past five years. But for nearly every clean step forward, there has been a disastrous, dirty step backward -- whether it's giving Shell Oil the green light to drill in the Polar Bear Seas, taking a pass on cutting down on dangerous smog pollution, or continuing to allow the leasing of coal at below fair market value.

The world's best climate scientists have made it clear: To avoid catastrophic climate change, we cannot exceed 800 billion total tons of carbon emissions by 2100. We've already used up at least two-thirds of that budget, and we're going through another 10 billion tons each year. If we burn just the fossil fuel reserves that are already claimed today by coal, oil, and gas companies, we'll end up hundreds of millions of tons past the disaster point. That doesn't even consider the possibility of new fossil fuel discoveries (and it's not as though no one's looking for them).

No one, not even the president of the United States, can change this math. We believe this president when he says he's serious about taking action on climate disruption. So, it's time for a choice: "clean before dirty" or "all of the above"?

Brune is executive director of Sierra Club and Yarnold is president and CEO of the National Audubon Society.

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