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Opinion: Fake Center, Go Right -- Chris Christie and the Politics of Climate Change

What happened to the centrist candidate with the winning vision for a green and clean future?

As a candidate for governor, Chris Christie spoke like a practical centrist with a vision for guiding the Garden State to a green tomorrow. Declaring that clean energy and green jobs were our future, he pledged to make New Jersey a national leader in the development of alternative energy.

But Gov. Christie has taken a decidedly different tack, veering hard to the right of his centrist campaign. First, he confessed that he was skeptical that climate change was caused by humans. Then, after a crash tutorial by two Rutgers climate change scientists, he made news again by conceding that he now accepted the consensus that manmade greenhouse gases were in fact wreaking havoc with our climate.

But shortly after this epiphany (and just as his tutors announced that sea level along the New Jersey coast would likely be a foot higher by 2050, and a full three feet higher in Atlantic City by the end of the century), the governor announced his intention to pull New Jersey out of RGGI, the regional compact among the 10 northeastern states designed to reduce carbon emissions and finance energy conservation and cleaner energy projects.

As justification for this withdrawal, Christie claimed that the RGGI was just another useless tax that did nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even worse, he felt that the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative -- with its incredibly modest energy surcharge of about one-third of one percent on the average home electric bill -- put New Jersey companies at a competitive disadvantage because neighboring Pennsylvania was not a member of the compact.

It strikes me that acknowledging the manmade causes of climate change while pulling out of the only organization that has any hope of addressing it, is something like reaffirming your support for antismoking programs while cutting the cigarette tax that funds those programs.

And comparing New Jersey to Pennsylvania, rather than the other nine member states in RGGI, is definitely odd, if not completely off the wall. Last time I checked, the Keystone State did not even have a statewide plumbing code. But I don’t see the governor suggesting that the fact that we require indoor plumbing here in the Garden State makes it hard for our home builders to compete with their counterparts across the river.

Why Walk Away?

So what is really going on here? Surely, the governor is smart enough to realize that, if anything, he ought to be seeking to strengthen RGGI. And he is correct that RGGI does not do enough to drive a move away from fossil fuels. But why walk away from the initiative rather than improve it? Funding from the carbon-credit auctions already held under RGGI has provided New Jersey with millions to help improve energy conservation, promote renewable energy, and generally position ourselves to make the transition to a more stable future with less reliance on fossil fuels and lower energy costs. At a time when substitute funding would be virtually impossible to secure, walking away from RGGI income seems more than a little foolhardy.

The governor is also both perceptive and ambitious enough to see that, given the gridlock in Washington, D.C., on the climate change issue, this could be a golden opportunity to position both himself and his state as real leaders in a way that would help both our economy and our environment.

But that is where the political calculus comes in. For reasons that defy all logic, the extreme right wing of the Republican party has focused on denying climate change and opposing RGGI with lynch-mob fervor, singling out this issue as a "litmus test" for Republicans everywhere. And it is becoming clear that their anger extends to renewable energy in general, as offshore wind power seems to be their next target.

No More Mr. Tough Guy?

Suddenly, our tough-guy governor who promised to tell it like it is and make the hard decisions needed to make New Jersey competitive again is singing a different tune. As evidence of this, his new Energy Master Plan (EMP) now commits the state to a natural gas and nuclear future. And it reduces the goal for renewable sources to 22.5 percent, a substantial retreat from the current goal of 30 percent, causing New Jersey to slip from third to seventh among all states on renewable energy goals. One has to wonder if renewable energy investment here will suffer as a result of this short-sighted retreat.

There are several ironies to this situation. The first is that the governor has recently been trumpeting New Jersey's prowess as a producer of solar energy. His recent press releases brag about the serious and legitimate solar accomplishments that current State policies have produced. The governor seems perfectly willing to take the credit for the impressive results these policies have brought in terms of energy savings and jobs created, even as he prepares to kill the proverbial goose that has been laying the golden eggs.

Another irony is that Chris Christie might well be one of the few folks in a position to tell the likes of Steve Lonegan and the Koch brothers (the poster boys of the anti-cap and trade, kill-RGGI, anti-renewable energy movement) that the proven economic and environmental benefits of reducing our carbon footprint and aggressively promoting renewables ought to trump ideology. Given his new national stature, he may also be one of the few politicians who could rise above all the right wing rhetoric and simply say that he remains committed to doing what is clearly in the best interests of New Jersey and the country. Now that would be some real tough-talking leadership, which would clearly propel our governor to the forefront of the ranks of his colleagues in statehouses around the country.

And it is not like the governor is without some business cover for staying the course, or an incredible opportunity to demonstrate some inspired leadership. He and other northeastern governors recently received a letter from some 225 business leaders, arguing that "the data shows a $4.00-$6.00 increase in economic output for every $1.00 invested in energy efficiency programs in the RGGI states" and urging these governors to "support and strengthen RGGI."

In just so happens that the Democratic legislature here in New Jersey recently presented Christie with a bill to keep the Garden State in RGGI. This presents our governor with an opportunity to lay out his plan for continued participation in the initiative and to send the bill back with his recommendations for needed reforms to make the regional compact more effective, rather than vetoing it outright, as widely expected.

Whether Christie will seize this opportunity and become a real national leader or show that he is just another politician who is intimidated by the right wing of his party, remains to be seen. But let’s hope that our tough-guy Governor is up to the challenge. Otherwise, gamblers in Atlantic City -- not to mention the hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans living just a few feet above sea level – just might want to learn to tread water.

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