The challenge of climate change

Open any newspaper, turn on any television or walk into any store and the topic of climate change is sure to be prominently mentioned. Going green has become one of the most popular corporate strategies the American public is confronted with on a daily basis. That was not the case just 10 years ago when I traveled to Kyoto with then-Vice President Al Gore. At that time the media hardly paid attention to the topic and the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Kyoto Protocol.

Today, Al Gore boasts an Oscar, an Emmy and, as of this week, a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in raising the public discourse. Scientists from around the world have reached greater consensus on climate change and the impacts are beamed across our television sets on a regular basis. Having seen the horrific pictures of hurricane Katrina and the melting ice sheets in Greenland, Americans in recent polls overwhelming want action from Congress.   

Fundamentally this topic is extremely complex and global in scope. Ten years ago, the perception was that global warming was not in need of an immediate fix but one to be dealt with over decades. In an institution like the Congress, which reacts best to crisis or to expiring provisions that affect key constituencies, this topic is a bit of an anomaly.

The fundamental shift on Capitol Hill in the last year has congressional leaders declaring that securing climate change legislation is no longer a question of “if” but rather a question of “how” and “when.” So what makes this legislation so challenging and so difficult for lawmakers and the lobbying community? For starters, this is truly a global issue, not one where the United States can adopt a go-it-alone approach. Our efforts not only need to be thoughtful about attacking the fundamental issue of greenhouse gas reductions but must also balance the global economics so as not to simply redistribute industries and pollution from one country to the next.

Another major challenge is addressing a solution from a wide range of policy tools available that could affect consumer behavior here at home. While some would advocate that a carbon tax may be a simple across-the-board solution, there are others who look at $3-a-gallon gasoline and suggest a different set of policy options. The average lobbyist who works only a few committees or issue areas has to adapt to a multi-pronged policy approach. Virtually every committee in Congress will hold hearings on global climate change. In fact, this may be the biggest, most complex piece of legislation Congress has considered since the New Deal.

Rarely does Congress debate something that will have such major implications for the planet.
Currently, Congress is considering a range of cap-and-trade programs with options for safety valves to protect our economic growth for the future. Efforts are under way to incentivize new fuels, new cars and new clean-coal technologies and to encourage the development and deployment of technologies that are only in the laboratory today. This is a veritable panacea for many lobbyists in town. However, those advocates must remember that not only will they have to support their paying clients but that the companies and the strategies they devise and support absolutely must make a contribution to saving our planet. It will not be enough to carry on with business as usual. It is incumbent on us all to make a contribution towards addressing what ultimately will be the greatest challenge to all of humankind.

Clearly we will not get everything right in these first efforts, but we should not allow perfection to get in the way of taking meaningful first steps.

As a world leader on so many issues, we need to do our best to make a difference here at home but also to encourage and build on what the rest of the world has done and will need to do. If we do not act together, we may have failed the task of a lifetime.

Viola is a senior policy adviser with Holland & Knight. She previously was a senior adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality.