After Sandy, harnessing the wind
By Michael Brune
Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director | Photo by Lori Eanes
Last autumn my family experienced two life-changing events, only one of which we were expecting. In late September, my wife and I welcomed the arrival of our beautiful new baby girl. One month later, the northeastern United States, including the small town on the Jersey shore where I grew up, was hit by Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record. It caused billions of dollars in damage, killed more than 100 people, and flooded—among many others—the family home my dad built before I was born. Thankfully, my parents were visiting their new grandchild in California when the storm hit.
Sandy was another in an unprecedented string of extreme weather events, and it dramatically underscored the grim consequences of climate disruption. It definitely marked a tipping point in public concern about our climate. In a poll by Zogby Analytics, two-thirds of Americans now say we should be doing something about it.
Illustration by Gracia Lam
Here's the good news: We are doing something. In fact, we started years ago, and we're seeing big results. According to the International Energy Agency, in the past six years the United States has cut its carbon dioxide emissions more than any other country has, bringing us down to 1992 levels.
How did we do that? The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which has worked tirelessly with hundreds of grassroots groups for more than a decade to prevent the construction of new coal-fired plants and to retire existing ones, played a big part. As of this writing, Beyond Coal has secured the retirement of 130 of them. (For the latest figure, go to bit.ly/BCvictories.) Those plants are, after cars and trucks, our nation's single biggest source of carbon pollution.
As for those cars and trucks, the Club hasn't stood idly by either. We've worked closely with the Obama administration, major automakers, and others to propose and finalize new vehicle standards that will nearly double the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks and slash carbon emissions by 2025.
Fantastic as this is, though, it's not enough. We can't protect our climate simply by saying no to bad ideas like cranking out more gas-guzzlers, building more coal plants, and fracking every last ounce of oil and gas. We must also shout yes to good ideas like energy efficiency, wind turbines, gas-free cars, and solar panels. We need to make a real and lasting commitment to clean energy, one that will lead us to a healthier, more economically robust, and fairer society.
Iowans get it. As Edward Humes reports in this issue ("Anywhere It Blows"), Iowa already generates 20 percent of its power from wind. The state has no fossil-fuel resources, so without energy from the prairie winds, it would have to rely on coal hauled in from Wyoming. And it's not just Iowa that's getting beyond coal. Nationwide, we've doubled our installed wind capacity since 2008.
Although renewable energy is booming, wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass currently provide only 5 percent of the electricity we use as a nation. Six states, however, produce more than 10 percent of their electricity from wind. And the policies, technologies, and infrastructure that we are developing today will unleash clean energy's full potential in years to come.
If you take away only one fact from this issue of Sierra, make it this: When you factor out all energy subsidies, wind power is the most economical way to generate electricity—besting both coal and natural gas.
The devastation caused by superstorm Sandy is a scary reminder of what the future holds if we get that energy policy wrong. Even if we get it just right, it won't be easy to repair our climate. But don't let anyone tell you it's impossible. With the progress we've already made, and the promise of the opportunities that lie ahead, we have no excuse for feeling powerless or discouraged.
My own feelings are perhaps best expressed by our baby daughter's full name: Welcome to this beautiful, complicated world, Genevieve Hope Brune.
Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.