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Whitman: Health Debate Stalling Action

Environmental activists surely assumed that, once in office, President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress would take significant steps to address climate change in the near term. Unfortunately, the effect of the tumultuous health care debate in Washington, D.C., is likely to be that no climate change bill will reach the president’s desk anytime soon. There is just too much acrimony over health care to see movement on this equally important issue, not to mention the difficulty posed by the soaring national debt, which leaves no funds to address the problem.

[IMGCAP(1)]Additionally, the latest poll numbers suggest that support for action on climate change is actually fading in the United States.

Perhaps the cold weather this summer and early snows this fall — or more likely the state of the economy — are making people focus on other issues. As a result, the combination of the rough health care battle, the continued economic challenges and the resulting public mood make Congressional action on climate change next year unlikely.

This means that as our delegation approaches the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen, we will have little to show in domestic accomplishments or promises for achieving international consensus on a workable plan. They will, however, still be able to point to the Environmental Protection Agency regulatory process that is continuing as our most substantive contribution to the issue since Obama was elected.

The U.S. delegation will have to face other countries’ intensified efforts on the issue. On Nov. 2, the president of the European Union, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, met with Obama to discuss the urgency of action on climate change. The following day, in her speech to a joint session of Congress, German Chancellor Angela Merkel encouraged the U.S. to join with Europe in an effort to bring China and India on board to future climate change agreements. Even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for sweeping action on climate change with threats that inaction may lead to very dire consequences.

And now, with all 27 EU countries signed on to the Lisbon Treaty, which changes the inner workings of the EU, it is increasingly likely that a strengthened Europe will play an even greater role in climate negotiations, especially since there is widespread consensus on the issue throughout the continent.

Although they may not be able to promise immediate legislative action at home, the U.S. delegation still has an important role to play in addressing this issue. There are actionable items we can work toward in the meetings in Copenhagen. Above all else, we must continue to press for some sort of voluntary agreement from China and India to give credibility to their promises of future action. In the near term, this should be the first priority for those nations that are serious about addressing the climate crisis.

It is my hope that Congress and the president will return to the climate change issue as soon as the tumult from the health care debate has subsided. It is an issue with enormous consequences — both environmental and economic.

Securing clean energy is one area where the issue of climate change and economic growth coincide. The United States is facing a 21 percent increase in electricity demand by 2030. How we meet that demand in a reliable, affordable and environmental way is the challenge.

There is no silver bullet to meet our energy needs. We need more conservation and more renewable sources of energy, and we will always have coal, oil and gas as part of the mix. Nuclear power, I believe, holds particular promise, which is why I am proud to co-chair the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition with Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace. Not only is nuclear power the only form of base power that emits no greenhouses gases or other regulated pollutants while producing power, but nuclear power plants are also engines of job creation and economic growth. Each nuclear plant generates an estimated $430 million a year in total output for the local community, along with nearly $40 million in total labor income. In addition to hundreds of jobs required to operate each reactor, new plants each require 3,000 to 4,000 construction jobs at peak periods as well.

In the end, the pursuit of new, more sustainable energy sources will have a positive effect in both the short and long terms. The jobs created by these new projects will boost local economies across the country, and the clean energy they produce will not only improve the environment but also reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy. Even if we cannot achieve great strides on this issue today, the day that we deal with it must be soon — before it is too late.

Christine Todd Whitman formerly served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator and governor of New Jersey. She is now co-chairwoman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition and president of the Whitman Strategy Group.