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Letter to the Editor: Stepping up to create a carbon-free future

Written by Tina Smith, who represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.

The science is clear: carbon emissions sent into the atmosphere from a variety of human sources threaten to upend our economy, our health, our national security, and our very way of life. 

At a recent conference at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, I joined local and state leaders, as well as energy and environmental experts from Minnesota and around the world as we shared our ideas for addressing climate change, which I consider the most urgent and existential challenge of our time.

Those ideas – and the action they spur – can’t come soon enough. 

We’ve already seen the impact of warming temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather. The growing prevalence of hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and tornadoes has already cost this country billions of dollars as communities are devastated, families are uprooted, and farmers are prevented from even getting into their fields. 

The science tells us the clock is ticking and that these worsening extremes will become the new normal unless we get to net-zero carbon emissions by midcentury.

Younger generations get it.  In a recent poll, half of Americans age 18 to 29 describe climate change as a “crisis that demands urgent action.” The good news is that they’re already leading on this issue because they understand that they’ll have to live with climate change’s disastrous consequences.  We need to listen.

U.S. Ceding Leadership on Climate Change

Unfortunately, at the national level, the United States has ceded leadership at the very time it’s needed most.  As a member of a Special Senate Committee on the Climate Crisis, I’m frustrated that the Trump Administration has taken a deliberate head-in-the-sand approach to this urgent problem.  And, I’ve seen how addressing climate change has become more difficult since President Trump pulled our country out of the international Paris Climate Agreement and later reversed policies that reduced carbon emissions from cars and our electric grid. 

His actions will also have environmental and economic consequences into the future.  As U.S. leadership wavers, China and other competitors have seized the opportunity to surpass the United States in creating new wind and solar energy projects.  As a result, clean energy jobs that could be created here, are now are being created elsewhere.

Fortunately, there is a groundswell of support for clean energy at the local level.  In response to President Trump’s move against the Paris Agreement, churches, tribes, local officials, and campus leaders have all responded with the “We are still in” campaign.

In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz has a plan for 100 percent carbon free electricity by 2050.  It even passed the House during the recently-completed legislative session, only to be blocked by the State Senate.  St. Paul, Minneapolis, Rochester and Duluth, along with smaller Minnesota cities have made similar commitments to cut carbon emissions.

Around the country, more than 100 cities have committed to completely clean or renewable energy.  Four states and the District of Columbia have policies to eliminate emissions by midcentury, and others are moving in that direction. 

A National Push for Net-Zero Electricity Emissions by Midcentury

These actions on the local and state levels have put momentum behind my push for much-needed national policies to cut and eliminate carbon emissions.

One of the largest emitters of greenhouse gas is our electricity grid. In May, I introduced legislation that puts the U.S. on a path to achieve net-zero electricity emissions by midcentury, and by 2035 it would cut emissions by nearly 80 percent compared to 2005 levels.

Under my plan, every company selling retail electricity would be asked to increase the amount of clean energy provided to its customers, with the recognition that utilities in different regions of the country will start from different places as they make the clean energy transition.

My bill also encourages companies to bring cost-effective, emission-free technologies to market by incentivizing the development and deployment of those technologies.  This includes long-term electricity storage, that can be turned on or off at any time to balance our electric grid.

In 2019, none of us knows what a reliable, affordable, net-zero emissions electricity system will look like in 2050.  What we do know is that we need to create clear clean-energy incentives and then let all technologies compete in the marketplace.  This means a resilient, reliable electric grid will be built on a combination of not only renewables like wind and solar, but also hydropower, nuclear power, long-term energy storage, and even fossil fuels that use carbon capture technologies.  My bill allows for that.

Addressing climate change isn’t easy, and there is no one solution.  We need to be open to all ideas, and all approaches that cut carbon emissions.  Putting those ideas into action is what my legislation is about, and it’s what I’ll continue to push into the future. 

Tina Smith represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. 

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