By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

It’s one of those cold, white-bright days of winter. We’ve not had many like it this January. Instead, we’ve been walking around outdoors in our shirt sleeves, sneezing from pollen allergies and having a lot of little conversations about the unusual warm “spell”.

We’re experiencing climate change, of course, and it’s not a spell, but a new norm. Nearly everyone recognizes that something’s going on. Sometimes I feel like a character in Twin Peaks, exchanging knowing glances with the neighbors over these changes we cannot speak of because it’s somehow become radical to openly declare that climate change is happening, even though people in all walks of life can see it plainly. I’m thinking about farmers, landscapers, urban planners, builders, utility managers, insurers, scientists, oceanographers, biologists, botanists, power plant operators….

Our political leaders and mass media are at least partly to blame for having distorted the dialogue. By depriving the topic of oxygen, they’ve suffocated discussion. So while thousands of agencies around the world grapple with the reality of climate change, maple sugar farmers in Vermont prepare to lose their business to Canada and NASA snaps another picture of the disappearing Arctic,  it fails to penetrate even the endless Republican debates. Lord knows they’ve had enough air time to get into it.

It could be just one more disconnect, similar to how income disparity has rankled the masses but bounced off the rubber politi-scape.

Except it’s not. A disconnect.

With climate change, anyway, leaders of both parties are deliberately avoiding the issue. Acknowledging this giant gorilla in the corner would be to admit that carbon pollution, and therefore  that our fossil fuel-based economy, has unhealthy consequences.

A question we can and must ask is how  do we step away from the fossil fuels that heat our houses, cook our food, propel our cars and serve as the building blocks for the plastic products that encase our food and electronics?

We can take two important steps:

The Energy Information Administration chart breaks down where our energy came from in 2010.

First, we support the move toward clean, renewable energy – wind, solar and geothermal — to power our buildings. If the US continues to provide tax credits to these job-creating, carbon-reducing industries, and states continue to set goals to add renewables to their portfolios, residents will reap the rewards with reliable electricity that will ultimately cost less. We’ll have cleaner air and jobs designed for the future. Already, the American solar and wind industries employ some 180,000 people in America and provide a small, but rapidly growing slice of the power pie (see chart above).

We could all learn from Iowa, where leaders decided that wind power gave its residents options. Now Iowa’s farmers earn lease money from the wind farms that provide nearly 20 percent of that state’s energy. Communities have jumped in with locally owned wind installations. School districts have installed wind towers in the sweet spots. Universities and community colleges have added courses to support new energy. Local economies are growing stronger, and consumers pay no more for their wind-powered electricity.

Texas also has a great wind story, with three of its cities, Dallas, Austin and Houston, using wind for municipal power and San Antonio planning a solar farm to rival any in the world. California pushed solar forward with solar with its million rooftops initiative. Then New Jersey offered solar incentives and shot to the top of the states making solar gains.

Consumers can participate in all these developments in a variety of ways. They can add solar panels or small wind to their own households. They can buy clean power from the grid. They can advocate for their town or business to use clean energy. And they can support retailers who’ve shifted to renewables through programs like WindMade, which identifies products that are manufactured using wind power. (We can do all that, and not waste our time with recalcitrant national politicians.)

Second, we must reduce the energy, mainly gasoline, that we consume for transportation.

That’s where the Obama Administration is heading with its proposal to gradually increase the average mileage for US-made cars and trucks to 54.5 mpg between 2017 and 2025.

This single, sweeping change would cut in half the amount of gasoline Americans consume.  Most people offering comments on the proposal at a hearing in Detroit yesterday were strongly supportive of this non-partisan effort.

The move to stricter mileage standards will reduce dependence on foreign oil, cut carbon pollution, reduce costs for consumers and create new jobs in the auto industry, enthused Bob King, president of the United Autoworkers Union.

“That’s a strong set of positives,” he said.

The new mileage goals will circumvent the need to drill in fragile places like the Alaskan Arctic or deep in the ocean, risking disasters like the BP Gulf oil spill, said Larry Schweiger, executive president of the National Wildlife Federation.

“The best place to drill for oil,” declared Schweiger at the hearing, “is under the hoods of our cars.”

By saving on gasoline, if not on the upfront cost of a car, consumers will still net a savings of around $3,000 over the 10-year life of an automobile, said Dr. Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America.

“These standards may well be the most important energy policy of the last quarter century,” he said. “They are win, win, win.”

But it’s not just workers, consumers and environmentalists who will benefit. The auto industry is embracing these new standards as a path toward revived relevance, with the provision that the federal government can review progress and make adjustments midway in the 13-year process.

Car dealers expressed some concern at the Detroit hearing that the new technologically advanced cars will cost consumers more at the outset – perhaps as much as $3,000 compared with today. Even though they’ll easily recoup that cost at the pump, buyers of modest means could be shut out of financing.

But another dealer pointed out that the costs could be leveled as technology advances.

Manufacturers representatives speaking during the opening of the hearing predicted that consumers will want the new technology, and understand that it affords them a net savings.

As John Viera, director of sustainability for Ford Motor Co. noted, one-third of the carmaker’s 2012 models already offer 40 mpg or better — a response to consumer desires.

“The standards proposed are aggressive,” he said, “but so are the demands from consumers for fuel efficiency.”

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