Climate and energy are both inherently local issues, says former Center for American Progress VP for Energy and Environment.
Kate Gordon likens herself to the Forrest Gump of the cleantech sector, always finding herself in organizations at the leading edge of change in clean energy and economic development policy.
She worked at the Apollo Alliance (which later merged with the BlueGreen Alliance) when green jobs became a national meme. Then she was with the Center for American Progress when the Waxman-Markey Bill — the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 that would have created a European style emissions trading program — was debated in Congress.
In the years leading up to that debate, the United States was facing an energy security crisis and the economy was healthy.
“There was a real justification in that for developing home-grown energy sources,” Kate Gordon recalls. “We could talk about big investments in energy transformation. After Waxman Markey we had a recession and the discovery of shale gas resources, and both of those conditions went away. So the conditions have really changed for the cleantech sector over a short time.”
Now Ms. Gordon is the vice president and director of the energy and climate program at Next Generation, a think tank based in San Francisco, developing policies and communications strategies to combat climate change and move the U.S. to a clean energy economy.
A REAL TRANSFORMATION will depend not on another set of transient political or economic circumstances, but on having a long-term strategy, Ms. Gordon says.
“The only political and policy argument that works is one that’s honestly about climate change — that this is the direction we need to go as a country and that cleantech is the solution,” she says. “Energy and climate change are the same issue.”
The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns in no uncertain terms of the risks of global warming. Such stern counsel is like the whistle of a slow oncoming freight train. Organizations like the IPCC struggle to communicate the need to put on the brakes when climate change is unfolding more slowly than the business and election cycles around which Americans plan.
“Long-term risk assessment is something we do in business all the time,” Ms. Gordon says. “We do it with insurance, utility capital investments, infrastructure, and the Defense Department does it with threat assessment. We need to be thinking about the catastrophic risk of climate change and what it means to each sector of the economy and region of the country.”
But many organizations and policymakers don’t think of climate change that way. Ms. Gordon is leading a research project titled “Risky Business” that will issue a major report in late June, 2014, about the likely economic impact of climate change on U.S. businesses. Early results of the research point to a need to think locally about climate change risks.
“It’s clear that climate and energy are both inherently local issues” Ms. Gordon says. “They have very different impacts depending on who you are and where you are. And just like any kind of risk analysis, your reaction is dependent on your risk tolerance and risk exposure.”
ON EARTH DAY, Kate Gordon will be a keynote speaker at the Future Energy Conference in Portland, Oregon, sharing the stage with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who sits on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and chairs the Committee on Finance.
The Pacific Northwest is known for low-cost power, most of which is hydroelectric and considered to be relatively clean energy. How does she think that region should view its role in mitigating the long-term risks of climate change?
“In many ways, Washington and Oregon are both in a great position to be leaders in an energy transformation because they have cheap, low-carbon energy,” Ms. Gordon says. “It’s a competitive advantage. They can say, In the context of these risks, we have the ability to adapt and to drive the transformation. It’s an economic development challenge more than it is a single macro policy challenge.”
That competitive advantage shouldn’t dissuade those states from supporting national carbon legislation, Ms. Gordon says. “Places like Oregon will compete well within a national framework that adequately prices carbon. We need to set the conditions that allow different regions to react according to their individual strengths.”
States that take action ahead of national legislation are going out on a limb, she says, citing the example of California’s AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which set emission reduction goals into law. It will be tough going for California until a national policy takes form.
“Each place has limits to its ability to do things on its own,” Ms. Gordon says. “We have to have a set of conditions at the national level that makes this kind of innovation possible at the state level.”
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