Democracy beats deniers on climate change

Any American civics lesson includes the "balance of powers" of our government among its three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. When all three branches agree on something, it's hard to argue against it. The latest of those rare alignments was completed when President Obama announced his plan to tackle carbon pollution from dirty power plants — and it's now time for opponents to get on board and accept the verdict of our democracy.

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The first two branches of government to agree on climate change solutions might surprise you. With the passage of the federal Clean Air Act in 1970, Congress set up a program to tackle all forms of air pollution, including greenhouse gases, although those pollutants were not well understood at the time. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled, in Massachusetts v. USEPA, that those pollutants are covered by the Clean Air Act. Equally important, the Court also ruled this year that we're all in this together, in USEPA v. EME Homer City Generation, finding that the USEPA has authority to regulate cross-state air pollution.

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So, when two of the three branches of government have spoken, it's clearly time for the third branch to act. That's what President Obama has done, not just this week with the new pollution control rule that will apply mostly to coal-fired power plants, but also in adopting California vehicle emissions limits in 2009 and with a number of actions taken during his time in office to tackle new sources of carbon pollution when industry adds or upgrades its facilities. In total, his actions can get us over 85 percent of the way toward the greenhouse-gas reductions that will be needed to comply with the laws passed by Congress and the legal interpretations of those laws by the Supreme Court.

Given this overwhelming mandate by our democracy, along with the latest reports from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Climate Assessment, it's time for the climate change deniers to stop literally tilting at windmills and just go away. It's also time for the fossil-fueled politicians and business leaders to focus their skills and resources on a clean energy future that will benefit all Americans and the world.

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And although it has taken four decades to come to mutual agreement and action on climate change by our three branches of government, what supports this rare consensus? As noted, the science is overwhelming and it all points to huge costs for our communities, and equally substantial missed opportunities for economic growth, if we fail to act now. Epic droughts, superstorms, and killer heatwaves have cost taxpayers billions; cleaning up spills from coal ash ponds and oil on our beaches, not to mention health care costs from asthma and lung cancer, have all cost billions more.

By sharp contrast, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports the growth in value and profits from clean energy. $214 billion was invested in 2013 and public market investments tripled over 2012 levels, leading to a 54-percent increase in clean energy share prices during 2013. Meanwhile the costs of solar and wind generation have fallen to levels that compete with fossil fuel generation with no subsidies (contrasted with the hidden costs borne by taxpayers for cleaning up fossil fuel pollution and related health-care costs). Even more significant is that these sources of energy are not imported and, once the facilities are built by U.S. workers in our own country, the lifetime cost of energy to power them is zero.

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Nor can we just point the finger at China or other polluters, because taking these actions eliminates their excuses for failing to do the same thing, while our economy will become stronger and more competitive over time. Instead, we should applaud the Obama administration for completing the trifecta of government action and encourage the President and the USEPA to finish the job. There will be opportunities to participate in the rulemaking process by stakeholders to be sure it's thoughtful and effective, but "just say no" is no longer a defensible or winning strategy.

Democracy is often slow and messy, but when it works — as it now has for our climate change obligations — it's a powerful force for change.

Commentary by Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. He is also the president of Seventh Generation Advisors and co-founder of the R20 Regions of Climate Action. Follow him on Twitter @terrytamminen.