Massachusetts Senator Touts ‘Inexorable’ Eco-Revolution
If he wins the White House, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has threatened to tear up the Paris climate agreement, revive American coal mining and do away with regulations for “phony” environmental problems.
Even if he takes over the presidency and makes good on what many experts say are unworkable promises, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) will be quietly waiting in the wings to fight him. A champion of the environment long before Republicans came to doubt the science of man-made global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions, Markey says the train has left the building when it comes to clean energy and fighting climate change.
“In the long run, we’re going to win. There’s an inexorable inevitability to this revolution that is taking place,” said Markey, who served for 37 years in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2013.
Markey gave an impassioned speech in defense of the environment and his congressional record at an Institute for Education (IFE) INFO Public Policy Salon on May 16 at French Ambassador Gérard Araud’s stately Kalorama residence.
Now in its 25th year, IFE’s INFO Roundtables have hosted some 280 speakers, including five Supreme Court judges, one vice president, one Miss America and an array of governors, mayors, members of Congress and ambassadors.
Envoys from the European Union, Afghanistan, Iceland, Colombia and Morocco were on hand for the May 16 discussion. Araud — famously described by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power as a “diplomatic and bureaucratic samurai” — said 2016 would go down as the “year of climate action.”
The French ambassador noted that 195 nations vowed to cut greenhouse gas emissions in a landmark U.N. accord reached in Paris last December. For the first time, the deal includes both developed nations that historically contributed to the rise in global greenhouse gas emissions and developing nations such as China and India that are among today’s biggest emitters.
Experts warn, however, that the voluntary pledges made by governments in Paris will only curb emissions by about half the level necessary to stave off a rise in global temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius, the tipping point at which scientists say the world will face an onslaught of floods, droughts, storms, food shortages and other weather-related disasters.
Nevertheless, the pact could mark a pivotal turning point in the carbon-fueled growth that has warmed the planet since the Industrial Revolution.
Araud said the focus now shifts to implementing the deal. That includes putting in place review mechanisms to ensure that countries are carrying out their obligations and moving ahead with promised financing to help developing nations mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
Markey echoed the sentiment that Paris marked a new phase in the climate change debate — a moment “where the world [doesn’t] argue over the science of climate change but argues over now how to implement an agreement,” he said. “The planet is running a fever and there are no emergency rooms for planets, so you have to engage in preventative care to avoid the worst, most catastrophic consequences.”
He pointed out that Greenland is home to a mile-high ice cap that is melting at an alarming rate, raising fears of a devastating rise in sea levels. “That’s the biggest ice cube on the planet,” Markey said. “Take a full glass of water of the oceans of the world and you put something 1,000 miles long and a mile high and 300 miles wide into that water, the consequences are going to be catastrophic.”
The Democratic senator rattled off a litany of similar examples illustrating how climate change is already wreaking havoc on weather patterns around the world.
“This past winter, up in Alaska, they only had 20 inches of snow, so they had to actually truck in the snow to begin the Iditarod race,” the Massachusetts native said in his signature Bostonian drawl. “Meanwhile, last winter in Massachusetts, we had 111 inches of snow, with water off of the coast of Massachusetts being measured at 20 degrees warmer than normal. And so when that changed Arctic flow, which didn’t leave snow on the ground in Anchorage, came down and hit Massachusetts, it hit this warm water, which created the combustion you need for the moisture to have this record-setting snow.
“I could go to almost any part of the world and give you examples of this not global warming but global weirding which is taking place … no one event is ever fully attributable to global warming, but the totality is greater warmth, greater danger.
“The science is undebatable,” Markey confidently declared. “The debate still rages, the deniers still exist, and so the fight goes on — more in our own country than almost any other place on the planet, mostly because those deniers are well-paid to take those positions which they do.”
Markey has been a longtime thorn in the side of those “deniers” — among them, he counts Peabody Energy, Alpha Natural Resources and other coal companies. The clean energy advocate, who has spent decades railing against the dangers of relying on coal and foreign oil, authored an appliance efficiency act that stopped the construction of hundreds of coal-fired plants, along with legislation to increase fuel economy standards.
Yet Markey says that big business could also be the climate’s unlikely savior. He argued that the hunt for alternatives to fossil fuels has unleashed private-sector innovation that cannot be contained.
“I was elected 40 years ago to Congress. In 1980, I had an amendment that passed that added $29 million in investment in solar research,” Markey said, noting that the solar energy industry had largely stalled until about a decade ago when it began to see significant growth and investment.
Since President Obama took office, solar electricity use has shot up twentyfold. In fact, the solar industry is adding jobs 10 times faster than the rest of the economy.
Likewise, the United States is now the number-one producer of wind power, generating three times as much wind energy today as it did in 2008.
“So the deployment then leads to this collapse in price that further accelerates its deployment,” Markey said.
“Meanwhile, coal has declined from 51 percent of all electrical-generating capacity in the United States just eight years ago down to 34 percent. It’s in a death spiral, for multiple reasons — the renewable electricity revolution is part of it, the energy efficiency revolution is part of it, but so is the fracking revolution that has led to natural gas being produced in vast quantities and lower prices than coal,” he explained.
When asked what will happen to the coal miners who’ll be left behind by this changing energy landscape, Markey pointed out that far more Americans are employed by renewables than by coal.
“Right now in 2016, we have 65,000 coal miners in the United States. We now have about 300,000 people employed in the wind and solar business,” he said. “And so we do have a responsibility to make the investment to help these families transition … but the decline is not going to stop.
“Some countries will look for an excuse why they won’t be as aggressive, but ultimately there’s dollars and cents at the heart of this. For example, in Iowa last year, 45 percent of all electricity was wind [even though] it’s a very conservative state,” he added. “So ultimately what we’re doing is building a constituency of business people who will finally be on [our] side.”
Various business interests, however, helped to torpedo Markey’s most ambitious environmental effort: The American Clean Energy and Security Act (otherwise known as the Waxman-Markey Bill for its co-authors, Markey and Henry Waxman, the former Democratic congressman from California).
The bill, which would have established a cap-and-trade system akin to the European Union’s emissions trading system, narrowly passed the House in 2009 but died in the Senate after being branded a “cap and tax” proposal that would weaken the economy. It was a huge blow for environmental groups, effectively killing the idea of a market-based system that would put a price on carbon emissions (whereby the federal government would set limits on greenhouse gas emissions and dole out tradable permits that companies could buy and sell to meet those limits).
But Markey says cap-and-trade is being embraced at the local and regional level. The East Coast, for example, has adopted a version that covers electric power generators. California operates a comprehensive cap-and-trade system. And globally, China said it wants to implement its own cap-and-trade system in the near future.
“The Canadian environment minister came into my office two weeks ago to tell me that the Canadian provinces are now looking at either linking into the East Coast cap-and-trade system or up to the California system,” Markey said. “And so the momentum builds as those who go first demonstrate that this is a system that can work.”
Ambassador of Afghanistan Hamdullah Mohib, center, poses with White House Presidential Innovation Fellows Ross Dakin and Steven Babitch.
Markey said the United States will have to set an example if it wants other countries to slash their greenhouse gas emissions. “Much of the C02 emissions historically were caused by us, so it’s hard to preach temperance from a barstool.”
He added that the battle to combat climate change will also be waged inside the courtroom, where lawyers are currently duking it out over Obama’s proposed Clean Power Plan to regulate carbon pollution from power plants.
Markey’s home state, in fact, has been an integral ally on the legal front. Massachusetts sued the Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that greenhouse gases were causing an erosion of its coastline. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-to-4 decision that the EPA had to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants, handing environmentalists a major victory.
“In 2009, when Barack Obama took over, he looked at that decision … and he looked back to a law which I was the host of in 2007, which mandated that the Department of Transportation dramatically increase the fuel economy standards of the vehicles which we buy in the United States,” Markey explained. “President Obama took that law and the 2007 Supreme Court decision and in negotiations with the auto industry in 2009 announced that fuel economy standards for the United States would reach 54.5 miles per gallon by the year 2025. In 2009, our average was 25 miles per gallon. So in other words, over a 16-year period, the president was saying that there had to be a more than doubling of fuel economy standards.
“At the same time, this unleashed the innovators who now would try to invent the new batteries, the new metals, the new propulsion systems that could meet that higher standard. In other words, it empowers Elon Musk to take his [electric car] company Tesla and be able to raise the funding that he needed.”
Markey said the electric car phenomenon is an example of clean energy as smart business.
“Now, we have 300,000 people who have already put down $1,000 to buy the $35,000 Tesla to own in a year and a half that hasn’t even been built yet,” he said. “Similarly, whether it be Elon Musk or the Volt, other companies and countries have announced their own electric models … the genie is out of the bottle. Billions of dollars have already been invested. To roll it back would be very difficult.”
Markey described a similar revolution that happened under his watch in the telecommunications industry. Among other things, he was instrumental in paving the way for independent wireless companies to enter the cell phone market in the 1990s, lowering prices while giving consumers more choices.
In 1996, he authored the Telecommunications Act that made the industry more competitive and expanded internet use. “President Clinton signed [the law] with a digital pen,” Markey recalled. “He gave me the digital pen, which I have framed on my wall. Not one home in the United States had broadband in February 1996. Today, if you’re a 12-year-old, you believe it’s a constitutional right to have internet in your home.”
Likewise, Markey said there will come a day when wind and solar power become our go-to sources of energy.
“It’s a long twilight struggle, but like the communications revolution that has democratized access to these tools in every country in the world, the same thing is going to happen with renewable energies … this is going to happen.”
But what if the unthinkable — for Democrats at least — happens and real estate magnate Donald Trump is elected to office over Hillary Clinton?
“First of all, the world is going to continue on — not as enthusiastically,” Markey admitted wryly. “At the end of the day, I think it will be relatively difficult to roll back this momentum. I think for the most part this is a revolution that can’t be stopped.”
The good-natured senator, in fact, seemed unfazed by the prospect of a former reality star taking over the White House. “Yes one of the two nominees this year is saying that climate change is a hoax, but I think that the next president of the United States, when she is sworn in, will be someone committed to the advancement of a solution to this problem,” he quipped, hinting that Clinton will become America’s first woman president.
Whatever happens in November, Markey said he’ll be ready. “I am an optimist, and there is no known instance of an Irishman voluntarily leaving Congress, so I will be here.”
By Anna Gawel | Diplomatic Pouch | Posted on June 22, 2016 | View online
Anna Gawel is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.