Moments after President Obama delivered a historic speech on climate change and what he is going to do about it, I received emails from three Nebraskans who have been elected to speak for our state: one from Senator Johanns, then one from Senator Fischer and another from Congressman Smith. In each of these emails were three main premises:

  1. The President’s initiatives will increase the cost of energy for all Americans and especially Nebraskans because we are reliant upon coal. An undue burden will be placed on American families and businesses, hurting the economy.
  2. Congress should focus on ways to “finally move toward an all of the above energy strategy”, rather than installing a dangerous regulatory regime.
  3. The President’s proposals should not be accepted because Executive Orders circumvent Congress and therefore go against the wishes of the American people. Senator Fischer was bold enough to claim that all Nebraskans are behind her in her expectations.

The conclusion they all draw, of course, is that the country is not yet ready to take decisive action on climate change by limiting carbon emissions. Unfortunately, their response is not a good representation of the type of the people who live in this state. As public servants representing Nebraska, they should be innovative and independent, responding to what they perceive as the threat of rising coal costs with alternative solutions. Instead, they took the easy route of sending messages (nearly identical to one another and in line with general Republican Party rhetoric) that misrepresent crucial aspects of this issue and rely on faulty logic.

So let’s go through these premises one by one, because every one of them came from a state of mind that does not reflect the inherent innovation, intelligence, creativity and independence that I see in every Nebraskan that these three are supposed to represent—and there are several things to set straight.

  • Because we are so dependent on coal, the President’s initiatives will increase the cost of energy. An undue burden will be placed on American families and business, hurting the economy.

This statement reflects the absolute lack of faith our Representatives have in the United States. Their responses to the President’s address take a doomsday point of view on the future, the innovation of the American people and Nebraskans’ readiness to lead the nation in renewable energy. Market forces have been driving the price we pay for coal upwards (regardless of increased regulation) for years as worldwide demand increases and reserves dwindle. At the same time, the broader public is realizing the greater social cost of coal, and in turn demanding that these costs be accounted for. These greater social costs include thousands of premature deaths, billions of dollars spent on hospitalizations for respiratory problems due to carbon emissions and even more billions spent on insuring families and businesses against the devastation of natural disasters that increase in frequency with a changing climate.

These statements by Senators Johanns and Fischer and Congressman Smith demonstrate that they are wholly invested in our continued dependency on coal.  Given that they have spent much of their lives in a time when coal has been cheap and plentiful and the United States burned it without recognizing the damages it inflicts, I can see where they would hold on to this point of view. And campaign contributions from the coal industry also probably help. Unfortunately, this perspective is a stagnant way of seeing how we get our energy and their responses to the President’s speech are retroactive and unproductive.

If we do continue our reliance on coal, then the cost of energy will indeed increase—both because of natural market forces and increased regulations (which we have been seen coming). We need our representatives to tell us what they are going to do about the rising cost of energy provided by coal, not just tell us it is happening and complain about it. As the representatives of a state with vast (and largely untapped) wind and solar resources, what they should do is lead the charge in supporting the development of renewable energies; after all, coal has had government support for a century.

  • Congress should focus on ways to finally move toward an all of the above energy strategy, rather than installing a dangerous regulatory regime.

The generation mix of electricity in the U.S. as a whole is as follows:

  • Coal, Natural Gas, and Petroleum = 68%
  • Renewables (not including hydropower) = 5%

The generation mix of electricity in Nebraska:

  • Coal, Natural Gas = 73%
  • Renewables (not including hydropower): 5%

Read here and here

I’m not sure I really need to state the obvious here, but just in case: The way to “finally move toward an all of the above energy strategy” is to increase generation by renewable energy sources…which is what President Obama is proposing. This rhetoric that Smith, Johanns, and Fischer are using to imply that they are the ones who support a diversified portfolio (while lambasting a proposal that would get us there), is a really poor cover for their complete commitment to a dirty, out-dated source of energy.

  • The President’s proposals should not be accepted because Executive Orders circumvent Congress and therefore go against the wishes of the American people.

Maybe if Congress was showing any capability of getting anything passed for the greater good, this would make sense. Unfortunately, Congress has been hovering around a 10% approval rating for a couple of years for a reason: they aren’t serving the American people. According to a recent poll conducted by the Center for Rural Affairs, 94% of Nebraskans support wind energy. Americans overall say that coal is their least favored source of energy, with solar coming in as their most favored, closely followed by wind. Only 31% of Americans support an increase in the domestic production of coal. It’s true that we don’t want to pay more for our energy. Luckily, if we take the opportunity to support renewables, we won’t have to. Our neighbors, Iowa and South Dakota, generate nearly a quarter of their electricity from wind—and both have lower overall electricity rates than we do in Nebraska (read here and here).

While it may not be ideal for the directives to reduce carbon emissions to come from the Executive Office rather than Congress, the leadership has got to come from somewhere. We, as stewards of the earth, have already passed our due-date for reducing carbon emissions. It’s time for our representatives in Congress to take a positive, forward-moving approach on energy rather than sending their constituents emails that grossly misrepresent what is at stake and ignore the very real, very negative impacts that dependence on a dirty source of energy like coal have.

It’s up to us to take action if they do not–and that’s exactly what we are doing. Right now there are key initiatives going on across our state that have Nebraskans taking power back into our own hands. Power Lincoln Locally is working to get LES to drop their depenency on coal, whilewe are putting up windmills and solar panels along the proposed path of the KXL. In 2014, we will help get New Energy candidates elected into office–people who will support renewable energy and protect our land and water. In the absense of common sense solutions from our representatives in Washington, it will be Nebraskans like us who will fight for the future of our state and our world.