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Why President Obama Should Keep His Promise to Tackle Climate Change

This article originally appeared in Grist.

A little less than four years ago, I was a bright-eyed intern in the Obama White House. The halls buzzed with hope, and optimistic predictions that we would tackle health care and then move on to the more challenging issues of climate change and immigration reform.

It wasn’t long, however, before the realities of the recession and extreme partisanship set in. The public’s disillusionment with politics grew almost as fast as the president’s gray hairs.

Obama’s victory on Nov. 6, though narrow, has offered a chance to reframe the debate. He has already promised that immigration reform will be introduced soon after his inauguration. Here’s why a climate bill should follow soon after:

1. Clean Energy Will Grow Our Economy

Solyndra might have failed but solar is clearly here to stay. I know this first-hand. I work at Mosaic, an online marketplace for investing in solar, and I live in Oakland, Calif., which is rapidly emerging as a solar hub. I can’t get a beer without running into an orange-clad Sungevity staff member or a Brightsource employee giddy on the company’s recent $83 million raise.

But it isn’t just an Oakland, or even a California, phenomenon. The solar industry is one of the fastest growing industries in America, employing over 100,000 people. Employment in the solar industry grew by 13 percent in 2012. (Employment in the overall economy grew just 2 percent during the same period.) Wind energy, meanwhile, has provided 35 percent of all new U.S. power capacity over the past five years.

As my colleague Erica Etelson recently outlined, there are a number of things President Obama could do to support the clean energy economy, including following through on his proposed National Clean Energy Standard, supporting the creation of Clean Energy Victory bonds, and pushing for a carbon tax as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations (though this is unlikely). He could also push for the extension of the Production Tax Credit for wind power, without which we could lose 37,000 American jobs.

The bottom line is that clean energy is an emerging, rapidly growing industry that is producing quality jobs right here in America. Republicans like jobs, Democrats like jobs – really, who doesn’t like jobs? And while not everyone loves government subsidies, the truth is that America subsidizes the hell out of mature, slow-growth industries like fossil fuels and big agriculture. Why not move some of those subsidies into an industry that actually gives us some economic bang for our buck?

 

2. Americans of all Stripes Want Action on Climate

As a post-election surveyby the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) showed, voters in key swing states said that energy was a “very important issue” in their vote decision. The majority of voters in Ohio, Iowa, Virginia, and Colorado wanted to move away from fossil fuels and toward solar, wind, and natural gas.

It’s not hard to see why. As Matt Kasper and Kiley Kroh explained in a recent piece in Climate Progress, voters in Colorado understand that the Mountain West “boasts nearly unlimited renewable energy resources like wind, solar, and geothermal,” enough to create 71,872 direct jobs. Voters in Iowa are thrilled with their booming wind industry that provides 20 percent of its electricity and creates around 7,000 jobs.

And this is isn’t just a swing state thing. Polls have consistently showed that the majority of Americans believe that our climate is changing (67 percent) and that global warming should be a priority for the government (77 percent). These polls were conducted before the Hurricane Sandy wake-up call that broke the climate silence that permeated this election and even led to Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement of Obama.

Apparently the president got the hint, as he acknowledged climate change in his victory speech saying, “We want our children to live in an America…that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” (He also spoke about it at length in his first post re-election press conference.)

But acknowledgement is one thing, action is another. Obama’s speech put forth goals of deficit reduction, tax code reform, immigration reform, and “freeing ourselves from foreign oil.” Though the last goal will hopefully include the aforementioned clean energy boons like extending the production tax credit for the wind industry, it will no doubt be a continuation of Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy.

 

3. It’s the Right Thing to Do

The problem with picking an “all of the above” energy strategy is that some of the options are, quite simply, bad. Dirty energy pollutes our air, poisons our water, and heats up our planet. How many devastating storms or widespread wildfires do we need to suffer through before our politicians realize that taking action on climate change is “worth it”?

I’ve traveled from Copenhagen to Rio de Janeiro and a lot of New York in between with SustainUS, a delegation of young Americans working towards sustainable development. But now, even as many of my friends prepare for the upcoming climate conference in Qatar, I’ve decided I’m done with UN conferences.

Mostly, they’re too depressing. I don’t have a good answer when people from around the world ask why the United States refuses to significantly reduce our carbon emissions. How do you tell someone from a small island state on the verge of submersion that tackling climate change isn’t politically popular enough in the U.S. to merit concern?

President Obama is a brilliant man who has managed to accomplish a lot in his first term, despite unprecedented levels of partisanship in Washington. This second term presents a historic opportunity to take action on climate change to grow our economy, address the concern of the American public, and ensure the continuation of life as we know it.

Please, Mr. President, don’t mess this one up.

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