Climate Change – Challenge and Opportunity
Michael O’Reilly, Director of Policy and Climate Strategy, Georgia, The Nature Conservancy
Several new reports this summer have painted a sobering view of the challenges we face in combatting climate change. Coupled with the unprecedented weather events wreaking havoc around the world, the situation can feel overwhelming for many of us. Yet, amid challenge, there is also opportunity.
Too often, the dialogue around climate change is framed in terms of limitations. Reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change is portrayed by some as an extreme sacrifice that will kill jobs, progress and the economy. However, evidence tells us otherwise.
Thanks to technological innovations, the costs associated with solar energy generation have dropped by 80% over the past decade. Georgia has seized upon this opportunity, and our state now ranks among the top ten U.S. states for installed solar capacity. Georgia is home to one of the largest solar panel manufacturing facilities in the world. More than 200 companies were active in Georgia’s solar industry last year, supporting well over 4,000 jobs.
It’s worth noting that this economic progress was achieved at a time when solar energy still provides only a small share of our state’s electrical power needs. Significantly ramping up clean solar energy generation to meet more of Georgia’s demand would create even more jobs and economic benefits, while also eliminating large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
I was inspired by the solutions-oriented innovation on display at last month’s Georgia Climate Conference that was organized by the state’s Department of Natural Resources and co-sponsored by The Nature Conservancy. Representatives from companies, nonprofits, state and federal agencies, and universities discussed proven and emerging solutions for meeting the state’s changing needs.
Natural solutions like the restoration of marshlands, oyster beds and reefs can substantially increase the ability of Georgia’s coastal communities to withstand storm surges and sea level rise. The forests that cover two-thirds of our state play a critical role in absorbing and sequestering carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas. Managing these forests to optimize this capacity helps our climate and provides forest owners with access to new revenue streams via carbon markets.
Given the state of American politics, it’s not often that I find myself being hopeful about the actions of Congress. Yet, I am encouraged by what Congress is poised to achieve on infrastructure and climate action. Just as members of Congress came together last year to pass the Great American Outdoors Act that provided funding for land and water conservation, the House of Representatives is set to pass the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was earlier approved by the Senate with bipartisan support.
This infrastructure legislation will provide funds to restore America’s crumbling roads and bridges. It will also support innovation. It will help propel the growing electric vehicle industry that Georgia seeks to attract. It will modernize America’s antiquated electrical grid. It will support the development of solar energy facilities on former industrial sites, providing jobs for communities in dire need of them. It will increase investment in forest restoration and will capitalize on the power of marshlands and other natural infrastructure to make our communities safer and more resilient.
Does the bipartisan infrastructure package have everything I might hope for to help us combat climate change? No, but more of that can be found in another package that may advance through the budget reconciliation process. There we find, among other things, incentives to support the expansion of clean energy and a plan to reward utilities for swiftly transitioning their energy sources from fossil fuels to clean sources like solar and wind generation.
These investments in infrastructure, energy, and climate solutions are what we need to meet the challenges we face. They are investments long overdue. Their adoption will help position the United States and Georgia to thrive in this time of change.
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