Congressional climate priorities

Few policy issues in the United States have morphed as significantly as climate change in the past two years. Today, national imperatives for economic and energy security dominate views on the environment. At the same time, weather disasters are expanding and global trends toward secure and sustainable energy markets are accelerating. 

While climate change is still unsettled as a congressional priority, it is connected to some of the top issues of our time — most notably the links between economic, energy and environmental security and sustainability.

In the next two years policymakers are more likely to connect these dots through reframed, integrated and targeted approaches than “one big thing” mechanisms. The win-win success pattern of practical approaches to energy, transportation and resources creates a natural platform for future progress. 

Consistent with these trends, a few priorities could emerge in the 2013 Congress that involve critical linkages between economy, energy and environment — including climate change. 

The first is a clean electricity standard. Americans want clean and affordable energy, and the power sector is poised to deliver. Price differentials between clean and conventional energy have shrunk in the past few years as long-term markets have reconfigured. Job and economic growth gains and energy savings from low-emitting, low-intensity approaches are now very attractive and under-leveraged across the U.S. Factor in a protracted dogfight over Environmental Protection Agency rules, and Congress might want to provide broader thinking and structure while the window is open. The renaissance of cheap natural gas creates a very important new opportunity, but it is actually a smaller factor than the broader renaissance toward efficiency, renewables and advanced fossil technologies that could solve a number of local and national problems at once. 

The second is an energy security blueprint. Americans also want safe energy, and they understand the links between energy and war. At the same time, they want sustainable communities, and they care about health. Ramping up domestic production of conventional energy is important, but it is only part of the answer if the real goal is moving the needle on a range of energy security metrics. Reduced energy imports will need to be combined with greater primary energy diversity at home, lower total energy footprint cost and less dependence on energy overall. Past proposals have not provided the breadth or detail needed in these areas for an integrated framework that spawns consistent new policy actions. Yet the administration and Congress both acknowledge the imperative of energy security, the leadership window is open and the Middle Eastern clock is ticking. 

The third is weather-risk reduction. Hurricane Sandy is the latest disaster event to demonstrate the emphatic cost of the “new normal” of the climate system. Given budget realities and the stunning and rapidly rising human cost of disaster, something has to give. Disaster management does not equal prevention — the Federal Emergency Management Agency can only do so much after the fact. The federal government, it turns out, plays a major role in risk-determining exposure by virtue of the siting, design and management of its own facilities (including defense installations), as well as surrounding communities. Federal, state and local relationships on disaster response and recovery don’t adequately address long-term weather risk avoidance strategies. That system is ripe for rethinking to ensure that state and local communities get the support and signals they need to get out from under enhanced disaster risk, and the rest of us get out from under the bill. Every new season of disasters will call the question again, and with more pain. 

A fourth possibility is new revenues. Congressional budget shifts related to energy and carbon could expand national revenues and help finance energy security and sustainability investments at the national and local levels. The level of interest by Congress in new action on this policy front could be tied, ultimately, to fiscal support. So revenue issues, whether direct or through private-sector enablement, are fundamental to legislative action. While this is a big lift, it might be that it becomes both timely and practical in 2013.

As the new session begins, we should remember that Congress can — and, many believe, should — only do so much. The president, mayors, governors and state and local legislators must play an equal leadership role, not to mention citizens and business leaders. The most important actions in the 2013 Congress will be the ones with measurable success, not those left behind in the subcommittee room.

Peterson is the founder and CEO of the Center for Climate Strategies. He represented the White House and U.S. Senate in climate treaty negotiations and national policy development, served as senior adviser to the White House Climate Change Task Force and was a legislative fellow in the U.S. Senate.