Climate change must factor in smart policy

America is blessed with abundant energy sources, from an array of traditional fuels and natural gas to solar, wind, and other renewable resources. But as the pressure on these resources grows, the United States must have a plan to ensure a stronger and more sustainable future. In today’s world, any smart and effective energy strategy must take into account the risks of climate change.

Climate change impacts are already here. They do not have a political affiliation, nor are they constrained by state boundaries. Moreover, climate impacts are taking a serious toll on America’s infrastructure and economy.

Let’s look at some examples:

America’s coastal areas are particularly vulnerable, as rising sea levels and heavier precipitation are increasing the impacts of hurricanes and other storms. More than 58 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, some $8.3 trillion, is generated in coastal areas (including the Great Lakes). This accounts for some 66 million jobs. Florida, in particular, faces significant threats due to rising seas.

Inland areas are also at risk of severe weather and climatic conditions. The current drought, which is still spread across 50 percent of the country, may cost 1 percent of U.S. GDP, taking a toll on agriculture, crops and cattle. For example, corn yields are down, which is driving up food prices. In turn, higher feed stocks and poor growing conditions are affecting the U.S. cattle supply, which last year was at its lowest level since 1952.

Drought has also disrupted transportation and supply chains along the Mississippi River. Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers conducted emergency operations to deepen the channel in the in response to low water levels. While the Corps was able to keep the river open, one recent report estimated that a major supply chain disruption on the Mississippi could have affected 8,000 jobs and commodities worth $2.8 billion.

America’s energy infrastructure itself is also at risk. Rising seas, for example, will bring more salinization and increased energy consumption for drainage and fresh water supplies. Some power plants are particularly vulnerable, with more than 280 U.S.-based electric plants and oil and gas refineries located in low-lying areas.

Consumers, too, are at risk from power outages. Following Hurricane Sandy and the nor’easter that followed, more than 8 million people were without power. Last summer’s derecho storm knocked out power for 4.2 million customers across 11 states. And, hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, like Katrina, can cause price spikes as they disrupt oil and gas supplies.

The question remains: What can be done? 

Clearly, the United States should be taking action to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the impacts of a changing world. Many local governments and groups are already acting, but the breadth of the impacts calls for action at all levels.

There are several steps that the Obama administration can take to shift the country to a lower-emissions trajectory:

The United States should be investing in more renewable energy and greater energy efficiency measures. The renewable energy market is expected to reach $2 trillion in the coming years. Yet last year, China outpaced the United States in investment in renewables by $67.8 billion to $44.2 billion. The United States needs strong and predictable policies to expand its share of the renewable energy market.

Energy efficiency measures can also save money and cut emissions. A recent analysis found that there are at least 34 efficiency standards that could save consumers a combined $26 billion annually by 2025 and save approximately 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions — the equivalent of 49 coal-fired power plants.

The expansion of shale gas drilling has been an economic boon to the United States, but it carries significant environment risks. One opportunity to cut U.S. emissions is by reducing methane leakage from natural-gas production, which account for a relatively small but important portion of U.S. emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency and states can help by adopting standards that directly address methane as a greenhouse gas pollutant.

The biggest near-term opportunity to cut emissions is by setting new standards for power plants, which represent one-third of all U.S. emissions. The EPA has the authority to set these standards, and it can do so in a way that cost-effective and flexible for business.

Clearly, the federal government has the tools in hand to make a real dent in U.S. emissions. Yet most of Congress is watching from the sidelines. Elected officials owe it to their constituents to develop meaningful and effective solutions to climate change. Climate impacts are here. The longer we wait, the harder and more costly it will be.

Kennedy is director of the U.S. Climate Program at the World Resources Institute.