Skip to content

Kaine: Solution To Climate Change Is American Innovation

Delivering late-night floor speech, Kaine joins #Up4Climate conversation, calls attention to urgent need to take action on climate change

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Last night, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine joined more than 25 members of the Senate Climate Action Task Force for a rare all-night session to call attention to the effects of climate change.  In his remarks, Kaine discussed the urgent need for Congress to act on curbing emissions and investing in innovative and clean energy solutions.

“The solution to climate change is American innovation,” Kaine said. “We have to get beyond the idea that we need to choose between a clean environment and a strong economy. We all want cleaner air and water. We all want jobs. They don’t have to contradict each other.”

Kaine also expressed concern about the economic impact that climate change will have on communities throughout the Commonwealth, particularly in Hampton Roads, home to the largest naval station in the world, Naval Station Norfolk.

“In Virginia, we've got huge areas of risk of the negative impacts of climate change - especially sea level rise - all effects that can be traced to carbon pollution,” Kaine said. “The Hampton Roads area of Virginia is the second-most populous area of our state - 1.6 million people. It is the second-most vulnerable community on the east coast, after New Orleans, to sea level rise” and ”is critically vulnerable to climate change.”

“In addition to being vulnerable because of our coast, our largest industry in Virginia is agriculture and forestry. If you want to talk about an industry affected by climate, that's your industry,” Kaine continued. 

Kaine also urged his congressional colleagues to embrace an energy strategy that builds on current energy sources by making them “cleaner tomorrow than today.”

“Coal currently accounts for 37% of U.S. electricity generation. … We don't have 37% of anything else that can step right in and replace coal, which means we need coal, we're going to be using it for a while,” Kaine said. “The challenge is to convert coal to electricity with less pollution than we do today. We have to innovate to make coal cleaner for that portion of the pie chart.”

Full transcript of Sen. Kaine’s remarks:

Thank you, Mr. President. I want to thank my colleagues for drawing attention to this issue. I want to start with the solution. The solution to climate change is American innovation. The solution to climate change is American innovation. We have to get beyond the idea, first, that we need to choose between a clean environment and a strong economy. We all want cleaner air and water. We all want jobs. They don't have to contradict each other. When we frame the debate as a conflict between an economy and the environment, we just talk past one another and we're not realistic about our own history. This is at the beginning, kind of a math problem folks.

According to the E.P.A.'s annual inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. pumped about 6 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in 2005. 6 billion tons. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that putting this much pollution into the air is bad for the planet, bad for our kids and for our grandkids. Most scientists tell us that we need to reduce emissions about 17% from that peak by 2020 and over 80% by 2050 in order to contain climate change to manageable levels. And so the question is this: how do we establish the appropriate incentives to get that number lower, to produce energy more cleanly, at prices we can afford, in quantities that support modern life? We've got to reduce pollution. We need to create jobs. Instead of arguing which is more important, let's figure out how we can use American innovation to do both.

My colleague from Vermont has talked a lot about some of the evidence. It is important to pay attention to patterns. And in Virginia we've got huge areas of risk of the negative impacts of climate change, especially sea level rise, all effects that can be traced to carbon pollution. The Hampton Roads area of Virginia is the second-most populous area of our state. 1.6 million people, and it is the second-most vulnerable community on the east coast, after New Orleans, the eastern half of the United States to sea level rise. So our second-largest area, which is the home of the largest concentration of naval power in the world, is critically vulnerable to climate change. I have friends who live in Hampton Roads in live in an historic neighborhood where homes have been occupied for 150 years who just in the last 15 years their home has become completely unable to be occupied. They cannot sell it. There's no way the bank will take it back. There's no way anyone will issue insurance to them.

In addition to being vulnerable because of our coast, our largest industry in Virginia is agriculture and forestry. If you want to talk about an industry affected by climate, that's your industry. $70-plus billion affected by climate. Tourism is a big industry. That's $20-plus billion a year. We are directly affected by climate and we see extreme weather patterns. It is not just a Katrina or a Sandy or an Ike. It’s the pattern of one after the next, droughts after the next, fire damage after the next. Just to use a recent example, we're having to deal with this in these halls. We passed a flood insurance to delay sharp premium increases for flood insurance policies that are subsidized by the national flood insurance program. Now, for those who weren't around when we had that debate, these increases in premiums were not because of new beach homes that millionaires are building right on the floodplain out on the beach. No, these were policies for homes whose owners have lived in them for decades that were never in the floodplains before but are now in floodplains because of sea level rise. My Portsmouth friends are friends who fit into that category – a home that never had these challenges that is now a home that they now cannot sell because of the sea level rise. The debate focused on what it would cause to delay premiums, how many people would be impacted upon the solvency of this program. The larger point is this: premiums are higher because flood risks are higher. When we see flood risks getting higher in every coastal area of the country, we have got to pay attention to what the pattern tells us. And if we don't, we're foolish.

Now, we have naysayers, and there are two kinds of naysayers. There are science deniers and leadership deniers, and I want to talk for a minute about both. The first are a group of people who despite the overwhelming scientific consensus say no, there is no scientific evidence that humans affect climate change or that there is even any change in the climate going on at all. Despite this overwhelming scientific consensus, the senator from Vermont mentions some quotes from members in this body who deny that science exists. To science deniers, I am happy to say that Virginians are pro-science. We are pro-science. Now, the quintessential Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, was the preeminent scientist of his day. You cannot be a proud Virginian and be anti-science. We accept the science in Virginia. In fact, the polling overwhelmingly among the Virginia public – and we're not the bluest state in the country. We're a coal-producing state. I'm going to get to that in a minute – even in coal-producing Virginia, the polling shows overwhelmingly that the Virginia public accepts humans are affecting climate, causing bad things to our economy and we've got to do something about it.

Now, there is a second argument. It's not science denial, it's leadership denial. These folks may not deny the climate science, but they deny that the U.S. can or should be a leader in taking any steps. They say look, even if we reduce U.S. emission to zero, it wouldn't offset world emissions unless China or India did something, and so let's just not do anything. That is just not the American way, folks, for us not to lead on something important like that. Now, it is true, it is true that we need every country to reduce emissions in the long run, but that's not an argument for the U.S. to do nothing. That's an argument for the U.S. to step up and be leaders. You know, part of leadership is sending the right signals into the market at the right time. That's one of the reasons why I think it would be a very good thing if the President rejected the proposal to expand use of tar sands oil through the Keystone XL Pipeline. We ought to send the right message right now. That's right now one of the most powerful things we could do in our country and beyond to show that we could be leaders. It's very difficult to lead and impossible to get people to follow if you're not willing to take a step as the most powerful and innovative economy in the world. We are the largest economy in the world. We have been since 1890. We're the global economic leader. We have a burden of leadership, and if we lead, we will succeed.

You know, it's not too hard to reduce emissions. We can reduce them. In fact, we're already starting. The senator from Vermont mentioned this. I mentioned in 2005, the U.S. was putting six billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. That was our base year. We have now actually dipped down to 5.6 billion tons. We've reduced it since 2005. Thanks to greater energy efficiency, natural gas, uptick in renewables, better fuel standards in our vehicles. So we're already on a positive path. We're actually on the way to meeting our goal of reducing emissions 17% by the year 2020. We're on the right track. We have just got to take more steps forward. So what's the strategy we need? I hear the President sometimes and others and I may use these words on occasion talk about the -- quote -- all of the above energy strategy. I have decided I don't like that phrase. When I hear somebody say all of the above, it's like when I ask one of my teenagers something and he says whatever. I don't like whatever as an answer because it kind of sounds like indifferent, and anything goes and who cares and what difference does it make? All of the above kind of has that attitude a little bit.

Now, sure, we should use all of our energy resources, I get that, in a comprehensive strategy, but what we really need is a comprehensive strategy that reduces CO2 emissions. That reduces CO2 emissions. Such a strategy to reduce emissions does mean everything: wind, solar, geothermal, advanced biofuels. I also think it means natural gas as a bridge fuel to reduce our carbon footprint. Nuclear if it we can reduce costs and resolve disposal issues and yes coal so long as we work to make it burn cleaner. This is my punch line of what we have got to do. We have to do everything cleaner tomorrow than we're doing it today. Everything cleaner tomorrow than we're doing it today. We'll have fossil fuels with us for some time and we won't bring emissions to zero any time soon, but just because we can't immediately go from six billion to zero tons of CO2, we can't rest on our effort to reduce our CO2 every day a little bit more.

On fossil fuels, we have got to take any progress we can that replaces dirty with less dirty even if it doesn't get us the whole way. Over time, the portion of our total energy footprint that's carbon based will get smaller, and as we develop more non-carbon alternatives, and it will also get cleaner as we reduce carbon-based energy emissions with better technology. Now, this is why I am against dirty fossil fuels like tar sands, which makes us dirtier tomorrow than today. I want to be cleaner tomorrow than today. Tar sands oil is about 15% to 20% dirtier than conventional oil. Let's not be dirtier tomorrow than today. We have got the trend line moving in the right direction, reducing CO2 emissions. Let's be cleaner tomorrow than today. Why would we backslide and be dirtier tomorrow? The bottom line is we have got to create energy cleaner tomorrow than today. And remember, it's a math problem. Six billion tons a year. We have got six more years to reduce it 17%, 36 years to reduce it by more than 80%. So we have our goal. We have our goal. We have got to give innovators the tools they need to meet it. And since innovators will solve this problem, here is the really fundamental challenge. This is the fundamental challenge.

Will Americans be the innovators? See, innovation will solve this problem. Will Americans be the innovators? Or will we bury our head in the tar sand and let other nation innovators be the ones who grab leadership in this economy? I don't want to bury my head in the tar sand. I want us to be the leader. Will we create new technologies and sell them to other nations or will we be late in the game and have to buy all the technologies from other nations?  The good news as I said we're already on our way to the 2020 goal, we don’t have to make it all dire. Let's celebrate a little bit of success and then figure out how to accelerate our success. The transportation sector, the fuel economy standards for cars, changing to natural gas and power production, all these things have helped us move toward lesser emissions. Wind is the fastest growing source of new electricity capacity in the world and in the United States, even above natural gas, which is growing rapidly. In a few years, Virginia will be contributing with some of the first offshore wind turbines near Virginia Beach.

I want to talk now for a second about a specific Virginia issue because I am not sure how many folks who are in this all-nighter speaking on this come from states that have coal and that produce coal and Virginia does. I want to talk about coal for a second. E.P.A. is expected to issue standards later this year about reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants, and in fact there is already talk on the other side of introducing a bill to reduce that -- repeal the regulations before the regulations even come out. I'm not exactly sure that's kosher, but I suspect we'll be having that debate later. There is a natural anxiety in a coal-producing region like southwest Virginia. That's where my wife's family is from. It's five counties in southwest Virginia. They are hard-hit counties. Coal is a big part of their economy, and traditionally it has been. Now, we mine as much coal today in Virginia as we did 50 years ago with 1/10 of the workers because it's a heavily mechanized industry but there are jobs in the state. And it's not just jobs. Coal has been traditionally low priced, and so the issue that is important and even states that don't have any coal often use a lot of coal to produce power, and the low price has been helpful to consumers who rely on cheap and abundant electricity made possible by coal.

Coal has been hit hard in some recent years. But I disagree, I disagree fundamentally with the kind of argument that's made by some, mostly in the coal industry, who blame coal's woes on a regulatory “war on coal”. When I talk to folks in the industry, they are always talking about that there is a federal “war on coal”. I'm going to tell you what's hurting coal. What's hurting coal is innovation – innovation and natural gas. Innovation in the natural gas industry has brought natural gas prices down, and utilities are deciding to use natural gas rather than coal. That's what's hurting coal these days, and we ought to take a lesson from that. Innovation is driving environmental cleanliness. Innovation is driving lower costs. The solution is not to stop innovation. The solution is not to shake your fist and blame regulation. The solution is to innovate. Coal currently accounts for 37% of U.S. electricity generation and around the same percentage in Virginia. We don't have today 37% of anything else that can step right in and replace coal, which means we need coal, we're going to be using it for a while. Since we need to reduce emissions, do it cleaner tomorrow than today and we're going to need coal for a while, the challenge is to convert coal to electricity with less pollution than we do today.

We have to innovate to make coal cleaner for that portion of the pie chart. I learned this as governor to permit a state-of-the-art coal plant in Virginia. It opened in 2012. It's designed in a way that dramatically reduces sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, mercury emissions and water use. It was also a plant that was only permitted when the company that wanted it agreed to take a dirty coal plant that preexisted the Clean Air Act and was grandfathered in for all of its pollution and to convert that to natural gas. That was innovative. The fuel mix of this plant needed to run the burners, accommodates biomass and waste coal as well. If we can use innovative practices to reduce these emissions, we can do the same thing with carbon emissions. But coal cannot stand still, let others innovate and then complain if it's not competitive. Coal has got to be as innovative as everything else and we have to figure out ways to assist. That's why I support federal investments in advanced fossil energy research and development.

Last fall, the energy department made available $8 billion. In advance fossil energy loan guarantee authority for low carbon fossil technologies. I advocated for appropriations for fossil energy R&D and there is a strong boost for those programs in the omnibus budget bill. There is a great Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech that's doing some of this research that can help us take that portion of the pie chart, make it cleaner and over time make it smaller as we expand on carbon energy. We have got to make sure that the upcoming standards the E.P.A. will put out are ambitious and appropriate incentives to get cleaner and disincentives to get dirtier and at the same time avoiding catastrophic disruptions in reliability or affordability.

I'm going to come back and conclude where I started. Remember I started and said I will give you the solution. The solution to climbing is innovations. Reducing air pollution is a hard problem, maybe harder than any pollutant problem we face because most pollutants tend to come from a particular economic sector, but CO2 comes from transportation and buildings and manufacturing and power productions, all sectors -- so the solution won't be simple. But we do not have to accept the false choice of an environment against the economy. Instead, we just need to innovate to find the solution. That's the innovation challenge we have, and I make it a habit, apparently unlike some of my colleagues here, to never bet against American innovation, to never bet against American innovation. We're the nation that said we put a man on the moon in a decade with computers that have less in them than your cell phone does, and we did it. We're the nation that harnessed the power of the atom. We're the nation that unwrapped the riddle of D.N.A. and are now using that knowledge to cure disease. Nobody should ever bet against American innovation. In fact, we have already shown it again and again that innovation and regulation, smart regulation can help us tackle pressing environmental problems.

When we were kids and my wife was growing up in Richmond where we now live, nobody, and I mean nobody, fished or swam in the James River in downtown Richmond. You would be taking your life into your hands if you swam or if you ate fish that you caught in that river because of pollution, other industrial pollution and poor treatment of municipal solid waste. But the nation passed the Clean Water Act and we got serious about cleaning up our rivers. Naysayers said it will damage the economy. It will bring our economy to its knees. But come and see what the Clean Water Act has meant to my hometown. You can swim or fish in the James River today and you can eat the fish that you catch. You can see herons and bald eagles there that were never there before. You can see residents and tourists who flock to the James River because they enjoy it. It took a law, it took some tough regulations, it took American ingenuity in finding new ways to clean up industrial and municipal waste, but we did it and our environment and economy are better off as a result.

When we needed to reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions because of acid rain, President George H. W. Bush worked with Congress to pass a cap-and-trade law to bring down these emissions. After the new law, somebody invented the catalytic converter and the sulfur scrubber. Not only were they not burdensome job killers, they helped air quality and created jobs for companies that manufactured catalytic converters and scrubbers. Not long ago we heard requiring automakers to make cars with better auto mileage would be devastating to the auto industry. President Obama struck a deal with the industry and, guess what? The quest to build more efficient vehicles helped revitalize an American auto industry that was on its back. Plants that were operating with skeleton crews just sweeping the floors at night now have multiple shifts making better vehicles that save drivers more money. The skeptics were loud but we moved ahead with smart regulation and American innovation and our environment and economy are better off as a result.

Mr. President, it is the skeptics and the deniers who fight against these strategies who are actually naive. The skeptics and deniers are the naive ones. Because again and again, they always claim that taking steps to help the environment will hurt the economy. And again and again, they've been proven wrong. Protecting the environment is good for the economy and good for the environment. So I say to the climate deniers or leadership deniers, don't underestimate American innovation. We can solve the problem of climate change for the good of the economy and the good of the planet. The story of American innovation is a story of solving the hard problems and I know we can solve this one.

Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.