Whatever It Takes

Why I won't back down on climate change.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

America’s oil addiction is nothing new. Ever since President Richard Nixon first talked about "energy independence," presidents and politicians have called on Washington to help break our dependence on oil from foreign countries. But again and again, in all the decades since, Washington has failed to do what everyone agrees must be done. It is a sad exclamation point on our failure to act — to really begin moving away from fossil fuels and toward alternative and sustainable energy sources — that today the United States actually imports more oil than it did on September 11, 2001. It’s long overdue to get real, get serious, and get to work on real answers to a serious challenge that is only underscored by the fact that carbon pollution dramatically intensifies the threat of global climate change. This is no longer some far-off problem that can be dealt with in the abstract. It’s here and now.

Climate instability and our oil addiction present immediate, direct threats to America’s national security. In 2007, 11 retired American admirals and generals warned, "Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States."  In fact, Pentagon, CIA and even analysts from George W. Bush’s administration have all affirmed that the instability resulting from our changing climate poses a clear threat to our security. They see a shifting strategic landscape of unrest and extremism — both between countries and within them — as competition for dwindling resources spreads. In just one sobering example, scientists have warned that the Himalayan glaciers, which supply fresh water to a billion people in India and Pakistan, will face severe impacts from climate change. If rivers dry up and famine spreads in this strategically vital region, it’s not hard to see how climate change could have a direct and destabilizing effect on U.S. national security. It is only prudent for those responsible for our security strategy to imagine and assess the strategic consequences of such looming climate change threats as scarcities of clean water, fresh food, and fertile farmland.

On top of that, it costs our government somewhere between $50 billion and $132.7 billion each year to maintain and protect the global infrastructure that delivers foreign oil to our shores. This doesn’t even take into account the potentially devastating costs of sending more than $500 billion a year from the U.S. economy to often unfriendly nations overseas. And don’t forget that every time oil prices go up $1, another $1.5 billion goes straight to Iran.

We have to solve this problem now. President Obama has put greater emphasis on a comprehensive solution than any American president before him. He’s pounded the bully pulpit for action — and been crystal clear about the actions needed when he said that "the only way the transition to clean energy will ultimately succeed is if the private sector is fully invested in this future — if capital comes off the sidelines and the ingenuity of our entrepreneurs is unleashed. And the only way to do that is by finally putting a price on carbon pollution.

"Now, many businesses have already embraced this idea because it provides a level of certainty about the future. And for those that face transition costs, we can help them adjust. But if we refuse to take into account the full costs of our fossil fuel addiction — if we don’t factor in the environmental costs and the national security costs and the true economic costs — we will have missed our best chance to seize a clean energy future." The president has convened bipartisan White House meetings to find a way forward on comprehensive energy and climate legislation. He has made it clear that he’s committed to finding the votes we need to pass a real answer this year. We know what it means when this president makes a full-throated commitment to overcome partisan bickering and achieve a pragmatic, historic accomplishment. And just as this was the year that we finally passed real health-care reform, this can be the year we transform our energy future in a real, lasting way.

We don’t know the exact shape that the final bill will take, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that he intends to get a comprehensive climate and energy bill on the floor this summer — and if there is any spirit of genuine bipartisanship, we can find the 60 votes we need to pass it. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico reminds us just how much is at stake, and America can’t afford to have the Senate put off the tough decisions for another year or another Congress. We have to make hard choices — and hard compromises — right now, because the challenge only grows every day that we wait.

Over the last year Senators Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, and I met with stakeholders on all sides of the climate and energy debate. Generals, admirals, CEOs, venture capitalists, environmentalists — I’ve heard every viewpoint on this issue, and I’ve always kept an open mind. Many of their proposals are incorporated in the American Power Act Lieberman and I submitted to our colleagues, and I’ll continue to pull together the best ideas from all corners, no matter who proposed them first.

But there is one area where I know we have to stand firm: Whatever we pass has to include a price on carbon pollution. This will determine whether we’re going to get serious about our oil addiction this year, or whether we’re only willing to pass a stopgap "energy-only" measure that will at best kick this problem down the road for another few years.

We’ve passed "energy-only" measures before — most recently in 2005 and 2007 — and they’ve failed to deliver the transformative shift our energy policy needs. China and Germany have surged ahead and built thriving markets around green technologies that our country invented. And we haven’t pushed back against the daunting threat that climate instability poses for our planet.

A comprehensive bill with a price signal on carbon is the only way to really address the environmental, economic, and national-security challenges we face. It will send a clear signal to the market that it’s time to develop alternative fuel sources so we can finally sever our dependence on distant nations and regimes that don’t share our values.

The nonpartisan, independent research is clear. In May Third Way, a leading moderate think tank, released a study showing that a carbon pricing plan would cut U.S. foreign oil consumption in half by 2020. The report also showed that a carbon price would promote job growth in all 50 states, creating about 1.9 million jobs in the next decade. And the nonpartisan Peterson Institute for International Economics affirmed those findings. Its analysis of the American Power Act concluded that this legislation will reduce foreign oil imports by 40 percent, create 200,000 new jobs each year, and lower household energy costs by $35 a year through 2020.

So there are the facts. A carbon-pricing plan will decrease our dependence on foreign oil, create American jobs, lower energy bills, and protect our environment. This will be the measure of a real bill, and I’m prepared to fight to get this done, following the strategy Winston Churchill laid out at the outbreak of World War II: "Never give in, never give in — never, never, never, never."

John Kerry is the U.S. secretary of state.