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Tamminen: Leaders Must 'Wake Up' About Climate Change

Monday, 29 Oct 2012 | 10:34 AM ET

In a political commercial that has been viewed by over a million people so far, Samuel L. Jackson shares his views on national priorities with the tart refrain "wake the [blank] up!"

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Perhaps no major issue facing the entire world is more pressing than climate change, yet so far neither of our candidates for president has demonstrated that they are "awake" to either the impacts or the solutions.

As reported by NASA and others, we are already seeing — and paying for — climate change impacts, including the record-breaking drought in the U.S.; the growing number of "climate refugees"; the rising sea levels that threaten to wipe out entire island nations within our lifetime; and the increasing intensity and duration of storms and hurricanes. (Read More: East Coast Grinds to a Halt as Superstorm Sandy Nears.)

When Al Gore ran for president and emphasized climate change issues, it was enough to focus on policies and investments that would mitigate the potential damage, but today our leaders need plans for both mitigation and adaptation to the now-inevitable impacts on our economy, real estate, and public health.

Although opposing sides have made the politics of climate change toxic to candidates running for high public office, despite the fact that the solutions have long been in our national self-interest, there are a lot of smart people drafting plans and quietly trying to demonstrate that these are not partisan problems or solutions.

The non-partisan Presidential Climate Action Project, or PCAP, includes luminaries from science, energy, economics, non-profits, and policy advisors to both sides of the aisle. The problem statement is sobering, but the solutions are affordable and practical.

Among the numerous cost-effective strategies, many already proven for years at the state and municipal level, the PCAP highlights the path to raising "energy productivity" — the useful work produced by energy consumed — by 70 percent in the next few decades. It describes how the president can create the programs with annual milestones to achieve this goal and how to simplify public access to federal energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, saving money and creating new sustainable jobs — while dramatically cutting greenhouse gas pollution — in the process.

(Read More: Could a Romney Win Hurt Investors in Green Energy?)

As both candidates debate future tax policy, the PCAP also details federal fiscal policy reforms that could put more money in consumers' pockets by rewarding efficient use of energy and switching to domestic, clean sources of energy, based on work underway by the National Academy of Sciences to understand the benefits of a "carbon audit" of the tax code.

And while it's not hard to understand why both candidates pander to a wide variety of voters, the PCAP explains why "all of the above" is not an effective energy strategy. Of course all energy options should be on the table, but not all of them should be equally valued in terms of their potential to support sustainable economic growth and reduce the inevitable costs of climate change.

"The weight for judging our energy options should include their social and health costs, their impacts on national security and the economy, their carbon emissions, their net-energy production and their water consumption, among other factors," said PCAP Executive Director Bill Becker.

(Read More: Green Energy Not Financially Backing Obama This Time.)

Unfortunately, as long as our "leaders" simply follow popularity polls driven by well-funded smoke screens meant to delay changes that are essential to our national and global well-being — both environmentally and economically — we might be forgiven for basing our votes in the upcoming election on less urgent issues. But if our leaders and the public don't soon "wake the [blank] up," Mother Nature will be sending us a bill that we are ill-equipped to pay.

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

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