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Tamminen: We Can Do Something About Tsunami Devastation

The ferocious tsunami that devastated Japan's coast is a tragic reminder that we have an uneasy relationship with our oceans. While we can't prevent earthquakes, we can minimize at least some of the damage from tsunamis on American shores by dealing with climate change and rising ocean levels now.

March 20th marked the beginning of National Tsunami Awareness Week. We will continue to hear more about the tragedy in Japan and about which preparations worked or which ones didn't. We will hear much more about awareness and warning systems. Those discussions also need to include the ongoing threat from a rise in ocean levels.

When the tsunami swells ripped toward the west coast of North America at hundreds of miles an hour two weeks ago, it was only luck of timing that they coincided with low tide in the areas of California that were the hardest hit, lessening the tsunami's impact.

As the great stores of water at our poles continue to melt from human-caused climate change, it is a simple fact that our ocean levels will rise. With that, it is expected even smaller tsunami events will have a greater impact on our coasts — and the US will not be immune from these effects.

What can humans do about things that appear to be massive forces of nature? We can begin by continuing our efforts to reduce our carbon output and slow a trend that is far from inevitable, rather than capitulating to forces that are trying to dismantle USEPA’s authority to regulate carbon pollution and to overturn progress already made in coastal states like California and Maine.

As profound events unfold in the Middle East and the true cost of nuclear power is revealed in Japan, which in turn has made us reexamine the astonishing cost of failures like Chernobyl, we can meet our energy needs in the US with renewable energy, improved energy efficiency, and carbon emission reductions — if we price all of our energy choices accurately.

Utilities, Congress, and energy experts have long fretted that only fossil fuels or nuclear power were affordable enough to support major economies like the US or Japan. If the recent events in Japan and Libya are not enough to make us accurately price the true costs of each type of energy future, it’s hard to imagine what will. And when we do, renewables and energy efficiency will win every time, making our country more competitive and shielding us from the devastation of nuclear meltdowns and oil wars.

Paradigm shifts such as this don't come easily and, although energy efficiency measures and renewable energy projects save money and create jobs, not all of this will be free. But if managed thoughtfully, the long-term payoffs are significant and irrefutable. Cleaner, cheaper energy and a stabilized climate shouldn't be sacrificed at the altar of immediate, short-term profits from carbon-based or highly risky energy sources.

If we do nothing to address climate change, by the end of this century ocean levels will rise 30 to 55 inches. The tsunami that hit California's coast last week was about 24 inches high. Compared to Japan this was nothing, but even this minimal event took a man's life and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. Such an increase in ocean levels on a permanent basis turns a manageable crisis into many more full-blown disasters.

The lessons here are many. In the near-term, we must do all we can to aide our Japanese friends in this time of crisis. In the long-term, we must heed the powerful truth that accurate cost accounting is the only way to see the future clearly.

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Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is president of Seventh Generation Advisors and an operating partner at Pegasus Capital Advisors.