NRDC Leader Says The Time is Now to Act on Climate

NRDC Leader Says The Time is Now to Act on Climate

Just last week, Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, gave a speech to a Chicago business audience and the first question went something like this: I read the Wall Street Journal, I still don't believe in climate science and I want to hear the full story.

Beinecke's new book, Clean Energy Common Sense: An American Call to Action on Global Climate Change (Rowan & Littlefield, $9.95), is aimed at those who are skeptical -- or at least curious -- about the climate change debate. It's a slim (106 pages), straightforward, easy-to-read argument that that attempts to connect the climate issue to everyday concerns like jobs, the economy and national security.

"When you go out to Gary, Indiana, Cleveland or Chicago, people are still uncertain," Beinecke said, as she unveiled the book at the National Press Club in Washington." They're not clear on what the science is, what the solutions are, what the threats are, what the impacts are."

And so Beinecke, as you'd expect, makes the case that the problem is dire, the solutions affordable and the benefits tangible -- new jobs, less reliance on imported oil and a livable planet.

To her credit, though, she's willing to go beyond the what's-in-it-for-you argument and describe the climate crisis as what it is -- the overarching moral issue of the moment, and one requiring immediate action:

Global climate change is the single greatest environmental challenge of our time. And yet, it is far more than that. It is a humanitarian challenge. It is an economic challenge. It is a national security challenge. It is the great moral challenge of our time.

If only more political leaders would frame the issue that way, instead of appealing only to the narrow self interest of voters.

And, while Americans don't like to hear it, she also goes straight at the issue of climate justice, writing:

The United States and other high-income nations produced, on average, 15 tones of greenhouse gases per person in 2005, according to World Bank calculations. That's more than seven times the per-capita rate in low-income countries. And yet, it is low-income people who bear the sharpest risk and most immediate consequence of global climate change.

If that's not unjust, then I don't know the meaning of the word.

Beinecke has worked for NRDC for 35 years, since graduating from Yale with one of the first classes of women to do so and earning a master's degree from the Yale School of Forestry. (Yes, for Yale alums reading this blog, she comes from the family that gave its money and its name to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and she's a former member of the Yale Corporation, which governs the university.) She has been president of NRDC since 2006, and has devoted herself passionately to the climate change issue for about a decade.

Her book does a couple of things well. First, it makes clear that the science of climate change, while uncertain in many respects, is unequivocal when it comes to the question of whether burning fossil fuels is warming the earth. While temperatures have leveled off for about a decade, she reminds us that "the 15 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1991." That's no accident. It should be a big worry. Then there's this: "Artic ice is essential to the world as we know it, and the fact is it's melting at an alarming rate."

Second, the book makes clear that the cost of mitigating carbon emissions is manageable:

Clean energy legislation would cost the average American household $160 a day in 2020, according to the CBO [Congressional Budget Office], or right at 44 cents a day. The EPA estimates the average per-house cost at between $80 and $111 per year–or 30 cents, on the high side, per day. And the DOE has set the cost of this kind of legislation at $83 a year by 2030, or 23 cents a day.

Not a big price to pay for, oh, preserving civilization as we know it.

The book isn't as specific about solutions. Beinecke writes that we need to do three things: Reduce global warming pollution (duh), promote alternatives to fossil fuels (OK, but which ones?) and help our country make a smooth transition to the clean energy future we need (well, yes, but how?). NRDC supports a cap-and-trade system, which, in theory, would leave specifics to the market, but legislation now making its way through Congress is laden with subsidies and prescriptive measures, ranging from efficiency standards for appliances and buildings to big bets with your tax dollars on so-called clean coal. Bipartisan negotiations among Sens. Kerry, Graham and Lieberman (who makes it tripartisan) bring such options as nuclear energy and offshore drilling into play.

I asked Beinecke whether nuclear power was part of the climate solution. She was a little vague, saying "it will continue to play a role." Well, sure, but should environmentalists be pressing for more nukes? She replied:

…there are several issues that we care a lot about, like waste and security and proliferation, that we think still need to be addressed. But the overall issue for nuclear has and continues to be cost.

Later, she told me:

We are not in favor of additional subsidies to the nuclear industry. They've been subsidized for the last 50 years. It's a mature industry.... Let it compete, on its own, without subsidies.

That's not a bad answer, except that NRDC and other enviros favor subsidies for cleaner coal (which, to be sure, is newer), wind and solar (which have been around a lot longer). I'm reading Stewart Brand's fascinating new book, Whole Earth Discipline, and will return to the nuclear issue soon. Ideally, since no one knows for sure which solution is best, and subsidizing all of the above is a cop-out, as well as expensive, we'd wipe out subsidies, put a steep price on carbon and let the market decide–which was the whole idea behind cap-and-trade before the bills in Congress grew past the 1,000-page mark.

If you've followed the climate debate, you need not read Clean Energy Common Sense. Read Stewart's book instead, or Al Gore's new tome. But if you have a friend or relative who is open-minded or disengaged, buy the book as a gift. As Beinecke says: "This is the time for people to pay attention." And to act.

Two final notes. I'm delighted that Frances has agreed to speak at FORTUNE's third Brainstorm Green conference, about business and the environment, which will be held April 12-14 in Laguna Niguel, CA. And here's a shout out to my Bethesda neighbor Bob Deans, the former White House reporter for Cox Newspapers, who joined NRDC last summer (after writing this lovely farewell), just in time to help Frances write the book.

GreenBiz.com Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at MarcGunther.com. You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.