Center for Climate Strategies' Peterson discusses future of state action

What role will state climate policies play in President Obama's second term? During today's OnPoint, Tom Peterson, president and CEO of the Center for Climate Strategies, explains how a patchwork of state-level successes could lead the way to significant steps on the national level. He also makes an economic argument for moving forward with emissions reduction policies.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Tom Peterson, president and CEO of the Center for Climate Strategies. Tom, thanks for coming on the show.

Tom Peterson: Thank you for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Tom, with the President being elected to a second term, does the climate focus in the U.S. now shift away from the states, where it's been for the last few years, and go back to being on the national level? Or will we still see this push on the state level for this sort of patchwork of state policies on climate?

Tom Peterson: I think the watchword is pragmatics. I think that you'll continue to see practical things that work for multiple purposes continue at the state and local level, and I think you'll see those kinds of things continue to be targeted at the federal level. It won't be either/or federal/state. It'll be both of them proceeding.

Monica Trauzzi: Climate change is a global issue, though. So how effective are these state policies in actually tackling the problem and reducing emissions? How effective have the states been?

Tom Peterson: Well, you know, President Clinton has this wonderful saying in retrospect of the Kyoto era where he says, "It's difficult to build a skyscraper from the sky down." And so these foundational activities within the sectors at the sub-national level, whether it's in the United States, through our states and cities, or whether it's through the provinces and states of other countries, have really enabled national action. That's been the foundation upon which it has proceeded. And statistically, when you look at the effectiveness of these actions in the United States, it's substantial, either in its own right, or as a precursor and pathway to federal actions, because most of the national actions we take here have their origins at the state and local level.

Monica Trauzzi: So when we take a look at the policies that are currently on the books, which ones have had the greatest impact on climate and emissions reduction?

Tom Peterson: If you look at our heat and power sector, it is the combination of more renewable energy or low emitting forms of energy as well as demand reduction, less energy intensity through efficiency and conservation. So the power sector is now very different than it used to be a decade ago because of both of these driving forces and the policies that are behind them. If you look in transportation, it's a combination of greater efficiency for our vehicles, which reduces fuel consumption, but also more efficiency in the location and design of communities, and then stronger emphasis on renewable and low emitting fuels. There's a big switch, for instance, undergoing the use of fuels in transportation towards electricity. And then finally, recycling and waste management reduction programs are not necessarily appreciated as much as they should be in terms of how much of a contribution they're making at getting pollution down as well.

Monica Trauzzi: So if all these policies are so effective, then is there still a need for this sort of big, scary climate policy that a lot of people are nervous about? They're nervous about the economic impacts that it could have. Do you need to go that aggressive if all of these smaller policies are working?

Tom Peterson: Well, what I would say is that if we're interested in meeting the President's goals, which are roughly the equivalent to the same goals that most countries in the world are pursuing, let's just say that it is by the year 2020 emissions reductions that are, emissions that are equivalent to 1990 levels. We've made a tremendous amount of progress in the United States. We're 70 percent close to that than we are just seven years ago. But we still have a gap, and it's still significant. And if we want to close that gap, it will require more action. The question is, which kinds of actions should we really undertake? And that could be more of the direct sector-based activities at the state and local and the federal level that have the effect of bringing emissions down, but also improving economic and energy systems, and that could be combined with more systematic national mechanisms at some point as well. They're not mutually exclusive, so the big thing that's so scary may be better defined by the more specific things that create pathways to attain it in the future. And then I think that might clarify some of the viewpoints around that.

Monica Trauzzi: What is your perspective, then, on what the best policy prescription is moving forward on climate, on the national level?

Tom Peterson: In Congress, it is a combination of targeted measures by committee and by economic sector that can accomplish important, a series of important national goals at the same time. A national clean energy standard, for instance. In the administration, it is better use of targeted authorities that the President already has to do more within our economic sectors, to bring more renewables, more efficiency, et cetera. So it's a combination of those two things. It's not Congress does it all. It's not the President does it all. The reality is both of them also need to provide support and signals for cities and states so they can do their part of this as well, and get a little bit of help while they do it.

Monica Trauzzi: There are concerns coming out of many different industries and sectors that there could be devastating impacts from these climate policies on their specific economy. So what's the economic argument, then, in favor of moving forward aggressively on climate, and how will these sectors actually fare?

Tom Peterson: So let me focus on the things that have already been done, that look like they have worked very well economically. These are things that have been hammered out at the local and state level or even hammered out at the national level, like renewable energy programs, demand reduction programs, resource recovery programs. And they are practical, they have performed well economically, they've been good for our energy systems, and there's a lot more where they came from. If we do more things that are consistent with them, there is very good evidence to suggest those are things that can be economically beneficial, not just at the broad scale. They help us actually capture and enhance this emerging economy that's more sustainable and more secure, not only in the United States, but worldwide, and we're actually in a race for these markets worldwide. There's an agenda of activities that get energy economy and environment on the same page in a really specific way. We have abundant evidence that that's happened so far. We have abundant evidence that more of that can happen. There are probably other policies that might not perform so well in that regard. We don't have to do things that don't work, because there are many good things that do work.

Monica Trauzzi: Final question here. How significant is the U.S.'s abundance of natural gas to the climate change discussion, and as we look towards how effective our emissions reduction policies can be?

Tom Peterson: I think it's a yin and a yang. Statistically, it's not as big as a lot of people might imagine. We've seen out of all the reductions in carbon dioxide emissions that have occurred in the last five years, only 6 percent of that is because of fuel switching from natural gas. So it's not the be all, end all. On the other hand, it has a very major impact in rearranging the dynamics of our power sector as well as potentially fuel for our transportation sector, and even though statistically the change is small, the carryover and enabling fact of that on a marginal basis is actually pretty significant in terms of how policies and markets work together. So it's a new ball game.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We'll end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show. Nice to see you.

Tom Peterson: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

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