TreeHugger Talks Climate with Bill Clinton


Bill Clinton and TreeHugger's Brian Merchant

Bill Clinton has become one of the most influential, ardent supporters of climate action of our time--and within five minutes of his walking into the small conference room at the Sheraton New York, it was clear why. His passion on the subject is infectious, his logic crystal clear, and his thinking fresh and forward-looking. Along with a handful of other bloggers, I sat down with the former president to discuss the most serious problems facing the world in honor of the fifth annual Clinton Global Initiative. Naturally, climate change rose to the top of the agenda. It was just about the first topic Clinton introduced after sitting down at the head of the table. He gave some words about the mission of his Global Initiative, which is to unite heads of state, big business, and the non-profit sector in making real commitments to far-reaching humanitarian efforts (so far, CGI has rallied $46 billion in aid to 200 million people, given health care to 48 million of those, saved 33 million acres of forest, spared the atmosphere 60 million tons of CO2, and treated 34 million people for tropical diseases, among other achievements).


Fighting Climate Change "Our Greatest Economic Opportunity"
And then we were off. It wasn't long before climate change was dominating the discussion, and Clinton was explaining how he still hopes the Senate will pass strong climate legislation this year, despite growing doubts. It was compelling (not to mention refreshing) how he framed the debate: he went straight for the economy.

Clinton never once mentioned rising sea levels, more severe hurricanes, or widespread droughts (though he's certainly aware of such threats). Instead, he repeatedly hit on the opportunities to grow jobs and create wealth the climate bill presents. Harkening back to the "it's the economy, stupid" ethos that helped get him elected president in the 90s, Clinton supports enacting a climate bill because it's clear to him that it would help, not hinder the economy.

He noted that Denmark, the UK, Germany, and Sweden all managed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions below Kyoto targets, increase the number of jobs and raise their median incomes, without increasing inequality. Clinton discounted the studies that predict climate legislation would shrink the economy by 1% of the GDP--and calls the kind of thinking that says climate action will cost the US jobs a "huge myth"--because they don't take into account the innovation and job expansion it would give rise to.

Clinton also mentioned how investing $1 billion in a solar plant grows 2,000 jobs, while investing the same amount in a coal plant typically only creates 170. He again brings up the idea of electric cars for clunkers, noting how popular and successful cash for clunkers was.

The former president said that we have a genuine chance to build a stronger economy, not on the backs of the real estate market, the finance industry, and consumer spending, but on innovation and real world job growth in the clean energy sector.

In fact, Clinton calls fighting climate change "the greatest economic opportunity we've ever had."


Bill Clinton's Push for Energy Efficiency
Clinton was downright adamant about promoting energy efficiency. He grew excited as he spoke on the topic, and leaned forward over the table, and talked as if he couldn't believe that anyone could possibly dispute that increasing energy efficiency measures could be a bad idea.

He cited a recent McKinsey report that outlines how we can reduce emissions and save nearly $700 billion by 2020 through energy efficient improvements alone. Noting that energy efficiency measures alone could get us to reduce emissions 80% by 2050 (the amount most scientists say we need to cut in order to avoid the worst of climate change), he pointed out that there's an entire potential workforce ready to be trained to retrofit buildings and do other green jobs--and that it makes perfect economic sense. The unemployed, and the willing to work are there; they just need to be mobilized. And for every $1 billion invested in making buildings energy efficient, some 6,000 jobs are created, he said.

No Senate Bill?
I asked Clinton what the US role could be in global climate talks at Copenhagen if the Senate doesn't end up passing a climate bill. He's more optimistic than I would have thought. He says in that case, it's up to Obama to make more good executive orders, especially regarding energy efficiency--one that imposes measures on appliances, (the fastest growing source of US power usage)--and then to make the case to the international community that progress is being made. Obama needs to demonstrate his commitment to climate action, even if the Senate is unwilling to cooperate.

Clinton said that Obama needs to be able to truthfully say "I put Congress through a hell of a lot, and we're going to get it next year."

The conversation lasted around an hour and a half, and involved bloggers from Think Progress, the Daily Kos, Mother Jones, among others. Other topics hit on included health care reform, education, and agriculture. Clinton seemed totally in his element, and answered every question with thoughtful vigor. He stayed well over 45 minutes after his staff told him time was up.

I think Clinton is right about a lot of things here--we need to focus more on how climate legislation could be an economic boon, and again capture the attention of those still hoping America can lead in innovation, and create secure jobs by emphasizing the potential climate action has for helping the US grow. As Clinton says, a climate bill doesn't have to be a "net negative"--far from it--moving towards a clean energy is simply good economics. And I couldn't agree more that we've got to start doing it now.

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Tags: Barack Obama | Bill Clinton | Congress | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Solutions | United States

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