What is Really Going to Impact Our Wallets?

I started following the campaign for offshore wind in Maryland when it was first introduced to the Maryland General Assembly three years ago.  On Tuesday, February 26th, the bill was successfully voted out of the Senate Finance Committee.  This achievement had been unaccomplished in the campaign’s previous three years.

I was able to attend both the House and Senate committee hearings on the legislation this year and heard the arguments, first hand, from the opposition in the retail and grocery industries.  Their arguments were surprising as they used short-term rationale to fight long-term progress, arguing that offshore wind would increase commercial utility costs, which hardworking Marylanders would have to pay for in increased product prices.

And while I do not doubt their threats of increased costs to consumers, I do believe this issue needs to be addressed in a larger context.  I would like to take this one step further, beyond grocery and retail store utilities, and broaden this discussion to address what it could mean for our wellbeing if we continue to allow short-term arguments to justify inaction to the long-term problems of climate change.

Climate change is a reality and reacting to its adverse effects comes with a significant economic cost.  Crop yields are being affected due to weather events like droughts, flooding, and fires.  Sea-level rise impacts those who are living in inundation areas who will be forced to pay higher insurance costs (if they can get coverage) or move to a new location.  Natural disasters, strengthened by the effects of climate change, come with a very expensive price tag.  And those same weather events impacting our crops yields and the areas we live in are also effecting our health, with an increase in heat related illnesses, a rise in respiratory diseases, as well as an increase in vector-, food-, and water-borne diseases.  Climate change is not just a scientific term, a temporary weather occurrence, or something often equated with Al Gore, this is something that has a direct impact on our health and wellbeing.  Can we really allow short-term arguments to justify derailment of our attempts at mitigating the impact of climate change and the adverse effects it has, and will continue to have, on our society?

What was so interesting to me about the testimony provided by the opposition in the grocery and retail industries was that their industries are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.  The industrial food system we are dependent upon, that retail and grocery industries play a part of, comes with a significant carbon and ecological footprint.  The adverse impacts of climate change are leading to droughts and fires, and other extreme weather that is directly impacting agricultural crop yields and therefore affecting the prices we see in retail/grocery stores.  This point was conveniently left out of their testimony to legislators at the committee hearings.

Their short-term arguments make it appear as if offshore wind would really impact the wallets of Maryland residents, but in reality it is the impact of climate change if we remain inactive.  If the retail and grocery industry really cared about the income of hardworking Marylanders, which they claimed to be concerned for in their testimony, they would help play a part in a solution to a problem they are accelerating.

I could go on about the issues with our industrial food system and the need to localize or the implications of climate change on our society, but I will save that for another time.  Instead I will quit while I am ahead simply say that as the 2013 Legislative Session progresses we cannot allow short-term arguments to derail long-term progress.  We cannot progress as a state and improve our overall wellbeing if we allow shortsighted arguments to skew the impact of what we are trying to accomplish.  The offshore wind legislation has been able to progress despite concerns from opponents, but you never know when the next bill could be derailed by shortsighted opposition.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Reporting in from the Environmental Grantmaker’s Association 2013 Federal Policy Briefing, Washington, DC

Funder gatherings are a little bit different from most of the conferences I’ve attended. First of all, the early morning sessions are extremely well-attended and filled with lively discussion.  Second, these meetings tend to have fewer talking heads and more focus on dialogue, which I find to be an energizing and refreshing format. The Environmental Grantmakers Association 2013 Federal Policy Briefing in Washington, DC (February 26-27) was no exception.  Over 100 grantmakers from across the country gathered at the Pew Charitable Trusts conference center in Washington, DC to talk about the path forward on Federal issues given the re-election of President Obama, a divided Congress, and game-changing climate-related events like Hurricane Sandy, unprecedented drought, and destructive forest fires. When I arrived for the first morning plenary, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon was already rolling with his remarks to a standing room only about where we are in the transition towards a new energy future.

One of the best sessions I attended was called “What Did the 2012 Election Mean for the Environmental Community?”  A panel of polling experts, moderated by Washington Post environmental reporter, Juliet Eilperin, discussed what was learned in the 2012 election, how the current electorate is different in its demographics and attitudes from years past, and what these changes might hold for the future on the environment. Ruy Teixeira with the Center for American Progress shared his data about millennials, the demographic cohort born between 1980 and 2000.  The goods news is that Teixeira thinks the millennials, estimated to make up 36% of voters in the next decade, are the most pro-environment generation this country has ever seen.  Celinda Lake, President of Lake Research Partners, shared her sobering research showing that most Americans think that we can adapt to climate change (and therefore are far less motivated to do anything about it right now) and that so long as the economy remains sluggish, people feel the environment is less of a priority. Christine Matthews, President of Bellwether Research, gave us a glimpse of how environmental issues are faring in conservative circles. She confirmed that the era of bi-partisanship on the environment is officially dead. Reality check:  the environment is the second most polarizing issue between democrats and republicans, right behind opposing views about the social safety net.

While some of this was discouraging to hear, the overwhelming attitude of the session was one of optimism. With over 70% of 18-29 year olds supportive of alternative sources of energy, and the fastest growing segments of the electorate leaning strongly in favor of environmental interests, there is a lot to be optimistic about –we have a tremendous opening for progress on the environment if we resist the urge to take the easy route. We’ve got to aim for the result that we really want, instead of what we perceive to be the most politically feasible in the moment.  We also need to do the hard work of building a scaffolding of public support that is informed by and responsive to the needs and concerns of quickly growing sectors of the electorate that support progress for the environment.

In keeping with the dominating theme of climate, Secretary of HUD, Shaun Donovan, who chairs the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, gave remarks about the innovative partnerships he and the Obama administration are working on to ensure that recovery from Sandy reaches the communities most in need, and sets into motion a comprehensive planning framework that that takes into consideration equitable access to housing and transportation in order for communities to be more resilient in the future.  Donovan’s vision was refreshing and encouraging.

All in all, the briefing provided a good caffeine boost for environmental grantmakers.