Opinion: State of the State Conspicuously Silent on Global Climate Change

It's not enough for governor to embrace Obama, he needs to get his arms around some presidential ideas

It is perhaps unfair to compare Gov. Chris Christie’s 2013 State of the State address with President Barack Obama’s stirring second inaugural.

For starters, Christie’s speech came at the beginning of a reelection year. The president’s follows his reelection victory.

Thus, Christie may be excused for expending so much of his speech talking up his “bipartisan” achievements when not reaching out to potential electoral allies — such as the long-suffering survivors of Hurricane Sandy, who rightly congratulate the governor for his Johnny-on-the-spot personal attention to their injuries and losses.

(Note: his well-earned goodwill could run out soon if more progress is not made in rebuilding shore communities and housing the homeless bouncing from one FEMA motel to the next.)

Less excusable is the governor’s omission of any mention of what should have been one of the key lessons of Hurricane Sandy — that global climate change shares the blame for such extreme weather conditions like superstorm Sandy and what he plans to do about it.

In fact, rather than singling out global warming — the prime cause of sea level rise which makes “superstorms” more frequent and terrible – – he signaled a possible dalliance with his party’s right-wing climate-change deniers. He described Sandy as “an act of God that delivered a natural, human, and financial disaster” to New Jersey.”

Gov. Christie could have used his bully pulpit to rally the state behind a renewed effort to use all available resources to combat potentially irreversible climate change, but he did nothing of the sort.

In contrast, across the Hudson River, Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. Cuomo drew an immediate connection between the wrath of Sandy and our collective responsibility, pledging to do their part in preventing — as well as preparing for — future super storms.

Now consider what President Obama said in his Martin Luther King Day inaugural address: “We, the people still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

To the climate change deniers, he pushed back: “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, crippling droughts, and more powerful storms.”

Most important of all, the president embraced “sustainable energy sources “as the path forward. “America cannot resist this transition [to green technologies]; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries . . . That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways, our croplands and snow-capped peaks.”

Oddly missing from the president’s list of national treasures was our coastlines, such as New Jersey’s ravaged shore, the most immediate victim of dramatic climate change.

Just a day after the inaugural a troubling report appeared in The New York Times Science Section (How High Could the Tide Go?), which reveals how at risk are our low-lying coastal areas. According to a team of scientists, the last time carbon dioxide (the prime culprit in climate change) reached current levels of 400 PPM in the atmosphere was the prehistoric Pliocene era. That was 3 million years ago when dinosaurs ruled the earth.

Back then sea levels were much higher — “from 15 feet to 130 feet above today’s ocean, with 80 feet higher being a commonly sited figure” by earth scientists. Can we expect the same result? Some researchers predict that the ocean will rise in this century “only” 3 feet to 6 feet, but this would “almost certainly require millions of people to evacuate coastal regions,” according to the article.

But it’s not too late – we hope – to take decisive action at both the federal and the state level.

Christie responded to criticisms of his speech not singling out gun violence as a pressing issue (following the massacre of schoolchildren in Connecticut) by appointing a commission to recommend solutions. The governor might well retake the initiative and show renewed support for renewable energy development, probably the most promising single antidote to carbon dioxide emissions spewing into the atmosphere from fossil-fuel sources.

But where to start? Let us count the ways:

To begin, the governor and Legislature should stop raiding the supposedly dedicated solar energy and energy efficiency trust funds and transferring them to the general state budget. These raids have become an annual event to help balance the state budget by dipping into the Societal Benefits Charge (SBC), which raises hundreds of millions of dollars in surcharges on consumers electric bills for such societal benefits as investing in solar power and promoting energy conservation.

How to save the SBC? Nothing stops the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) from acting. A “memorandum of agreement” signed by the BPU and the state treasurer authorizes the board “in its sole discretion” to retrieve the trust fund’s millions and deposit them with the public utilities that collect the SBC.

This one action would remove the trust fund from the grasp of elected state officials and maintain the SBC’s statutory purposes.

But that is only a start, much more is needed to ensure New Jersey’s continued national leadership, behind only California, in renewable power projects.

A recent article on the NJ Spotlight website (New Jersey Solar Sector Stalls and Falls,) reports the “steep drop in the prices that owners of solar systems earned for the electricity their arrays produce.” This has led to a steep decline in new solar power development — all but halting the phenomenal growth to date, now totaling some 959 megawatts of solar capacity (equivalent to one large nuclear power plant).

So, governor, it’s not too late to fill in the blank spot in your eloquent speech — embracing (figuratively speaking this time) President Obama.