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Clinton: Debate Has Evolved Since ’90s

In my second term as president, the big climate debate in Washington was over whether global warming posed a serious threat to our future and whether, if it did, we and other nations could reduce emissions without doing serious damage to the economy. Although we were able to successfully reduce vehicle emissions and air pollution, issue new energy-saving standards for household appliances, and save taxpayers more than $750 million through energy-efficient projects, we could not get Congress to approve the Kyoto Accords because most Members believed reducing emissions could not be done without harming the economy and didn’t believe the problem was serious enough to warrant the sacrifice.

[IMGCAP(1)]Twelve years later, in the weeks leading up to the Copenhagen conference on developing an agreement to succeed the Kyoto Accords, we face a much different situation. We know now that our planet is rapidly warming and that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe we must decrease our greenhouse gas emissions by about 80 percent by mid-century to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Now the real debate is no longer about whether, but how we can do so in a way that does not impose serious burdens on economic well-being.

Some still believe that changing the way we produce and consume energy, especially in the midst of a financial crisis, is a recipe for economic calamity. In fact, meeting the climate change challenge offers us a tremendous opportunity to restore America’s economy and establish a new source of sustainable, good-paying jobs.

According to the Earth Policy Institute, every $1 billion we invest in coal-fired power plants creates 870 jobs while the same investment in photovoltaic cells creates 1,800 jobs; in solar thermal plants, 1,900 jobs; in wind energy, 3,300 jobs; and in building retrofits, 7,000 jobs. There is also tremendous economic potential in clean energy transportation; better waste management; smart reforestation and avoided deforestation; carbon-neutral buildings; carbon capture; and a host of other options that will create far more new jobs and new businesses than the old energy economy was producing.

My foundation’s climate initiative is working to prove the viability of these projects on a large scale. We are helping 40 large cities in the U.S. and all over the world to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions with innovative projects, including more than 250 large building retrofits; ambitious plans to reduce landfill emissions; conversions of urban streetlights to LED; green transportation systems; and new initiatives in solar thermal power generation, carbon capture and storage, and deforestation.

Earlier this year, we helped initiate a retrofit project for the Empire State Building, built in 1931 in the teeth of the Depression. By installing better heating and cooling systems, replacing windows and lights, and improving building operations, the energy service contractors estimate those retrofits will save the building owner $4.5 million in utility bills annually and reduce the building’s emissions by 38 percent — the equivalent of taking 19,000 cars off the road. The project will pay for itself in a little more than seven years, far less than the typical financing period for a coal-fired power plant.

We have to find ways to do this on a national scale. The Center for American Progress released a report earlier this year that shows buildings can contribute 40 percent of our country’s emissions — but through retrofits, we can easily cut energy consumption by 20 percent to 40 percent. If we commit to retrofitting just 40 percent of our building stock over 10 years, we could create 625,000 sustainable jobs. If we commit to retrofitting all of our buildings in five years, we could create millions of jobs at a time when unemployment in the construction industry is 17 percent.

But obstacles remain. While the owners of the Empire State Building could afford the project’s $33 million price tag, most building and homeowners can’t. To maximize the economic benefits of the energy revolution, we need reforms that will remove the financing disadvantage tomorrow’s energy economy faces when compared to the status quo: nationwide decoupling with a requirement that utility companies finance these projects; local funding initiatives, including property tax breaks, finance systems comparable to mortgage payments, or small-business loan programs; and tapping the $900 billion in uncommitted loans in our nation’s banks to finance these projects, to be paid back with the money from energy savings guaranteed by energy service companies.

In this economy, banks are looking for quality, low-risk opportunities, Retrofits would be especially attractive if bank loans were backed by a federal guarantee, modeled on the Small Business Administration loan guarantee. When coupled with the existing federal and state funding already available for retrofits, this one initiative could restart bank lending and lead to the creation of an enormous number of jobs. In addition, existing and new programs at both the federal and state levels also provide numerous opportunities to rapidly finance a dramatic expansion of the building retrofit industry.

Other nations understate the enormous potential in combating climate change. Before the financial crisis, the four wealthy nations that will surely meet their Kyoto targets — the U.K., Germany, Denmark and Sweden — were outperforming wealthy nations because of their commitments to a new energy future. China has moved from denial to aggressively embracing the potential of clean-energy technologies to keep its amazing growth going and improve the quality of life.

Major cities from Mexico City to Lagos to Delhi are planning to close landfills, freeing up thousands of acres of land and improving public health by capturing the methane gas landfills produce and using it to generate electricity.

It is important to get a new climate treaty at Copenhagen in December to succeed the Kyoto Accords. It is important that Congress respond to the president’s call to pass responsible climate change legislation. It is important that China, India and other emerging economies be part of that solution.

It should be easier to accomplish all this now because we know that changing the way we produce and consume energy, provided we do it in the right way, is not an economic millstone around our necks. Instead, it is the single fastest way to jump-start the economy and restore the middle class by creating new jobs and lowering energy costs. Using our own sun, wind and natural gas; developing new technologies for appliances, green buildings and retrofits; restoring our forests; capturing carbon and storing or recycling it — all these things will also enhance our national security. And spreading these practices throughout the world will speed development and reduce poverty, ensuring us a future with more partners and fewer enemies.

And to top it off, we’ll save the planet for our children and grandchildren. I hope Congress will keep these points in mind as it responds to President Barack Obama’s call for a climate change bill.

Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, heads the Clinton Climate Initiative at the William J. Clinton Foundation.

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