There may be no more complicated topic than global warming. Researchers say that global temperatures will continue to rise for centuries, no matter what we do today…and prospects for getting things done in Congress are not that bright. But climate policy expert Sam Ricketts says there is a lot of important action outside federal government that is making a big difference. And that should give us all reason to hope.
Listen to the full conversation here:
Matt Robison: We’ve heard so much about global warming. But just to state it outright, what’s the problem in a nutshell?
Sam Ricketts: Global warming is caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That’s been going on for a couple of hundred years due to industrialization. That entailed digging up fossil fuels like coal and oil and gas while cutting down forest to make room for development. Gases from burning those fuels have a heat trapping effect. That basically has heated up the planet.
Matt Robison: What’s the scale of the challenge ahead?
Sam Ricketts: We’re already in for a world of hurt. Last year, the United States suffered the greatest number of [weather-related] disasters ever. They cost hundreds of lives. They cost tens of billions of dollars. These impacts are only increasing…across the country and across the world. We’ve got to restrain warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius across the globe to avoid the worst impacts of climate change over the next 30 years. We’re not on a path to do that. We are on a path to go well beyond that.
Matt Robison: What are the sources of the problem?
Sam Ricketts: The biggest source is transportation. That is primarily cars – well over a quarter of emissions in the US. Electricity is second. We’re talking about power plants: coal and gas fired. The third largest source of emissions, and possibly the most complicated, is actually industrial emissions. It’s about a fifth of the total. And then the fourth is basically buildings.
Different sectors that are making progress in different ways. Electricity is the bright spot thanks to state policy mostly. There has been 30 years of state adoptions of renewable portfolio standards and other policies that induce clean electricity into the market. The US electricity system is about 40% carbon free power right now, which is about half renewables. The exciting thing in the transportation sector is the movement toward electric vehicles.
Matt Robison: So it sounds like what you’ve advocated for is looking at that bright spot. Focusing on what are the states getting right.
Sam Ricketts: For decades, states have been primary leaders in driving environmental and energy policy forward. When we think of air pollution regulations, we think of the EPA. But actually it was states that began this movement. Iowa was the first state to adopt a renewable portfolio standard, and under a Republican Governor: Terry Branstad in 1983. It was in late 1990s and early 2000s that states began to contemplate and started to pass their own global warming climate change laws.
This year you’re seeing states make progress with incentives for infrastructure investments. Green banks, something that puts dollars into communities that invest in good, clean energy job creation. You’re seeing more and more states and local governments confront the fossil fuel industry. The list goes on.
Matt Robison: You mentioned innovation that’s happened in a lot of states where the political leadership is Republican. So it seems that one of the lessons here is that this issue does not have to be as divisive as it has been at the federal level and in the Congress. There has actually been some coming together on practical solutions that are good for the economy that are good for the climate?
Sam Ricketts: Yes! Just look at Arizona, the latest state to have adopted a hundred percent carbon-free power requirement. Both Illinois and Nebraska are contemplating the the same. Illinois is obviously a pretty blue state and Nebraska is a red state. So its two different paths that lead to the same conclusion.
People understand climate change is happening. Republicans, independents, and Democrats together understand that climate change is occurring and that we need to do something about it. Both parties have embraced these solutions.
So there are lessons to be learned from progress at the state level. One is the importance of sector by sector approaches and solutions that work. Trying to throw big one size fits all solutions isn’t quite going to fly. The second lesson is you’ve got to plow ahead. Grab what you can and keep going and going.
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Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.