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EPA Head: Climate Change Fight Needs Innovation to Save Economy

October 24, 2014 — America can use the same innovation and ingenuity it has used to overcome other complex challenges to combat climate change without hurting the economy, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said at Georgetown today.

“[The EPA has] tackled the most pressing environmental challenges in ways that have sparked American ingenuity and it’s led to a United States environmental industry [and] technology industry that is really second to none,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, keynote speaker at this year’s McCourt School of Public Policy LEAD Conference. “We understand that today’s climate change issue is actually the most complex energy and environmental challenge that we perhaps have ever faced.

“It’s also the most significant public health challenge,” she added. “But like always, we can turn that challenge in to a tremendous opportunity.”

Power of Opinion

The McCourt School of Public Policy LEAD Conference showcases the school’s research and brings together key stakeholders to examine a particular policy challenge and foster dialogue on potential solutions. LEAD stands for leadership, evidence, analysis and debate.

Research conducted by McCourt professor David Konisky and Harvard’s Stephen Ansolabehere inspired this year’s conference, “The Power of Opinion: How Americans’ Preferences on Energy Point a Way Forward on Climate Change.”

Konisky and Ansolabehere, who presented their research at the conference, have created nationally representative public opinion surveys on American’s attitudes toward energy.

Underscoring Truth

The professors’ new book, Cheap and Clean: How Americans Think about Energy in the Age of Global Warming (MIT Press, 2014) presents the first comprehensive picture of how the American public understands energy, the environment, and climate change.

The authors concluded that Americans want energy to be much less expensive and less harmful to human health and the environment.

“[The American people] know we can, and they know we must make energy clean, efficient and affordable,” she said. “The research from … [Konisky and Ansolabehere’s] new book underscores that truth … clean power isn’t about just protecting public health, it’s about protecting people’s pocket books.

‘All Politics is Local’

Research by Konisky and the Harvard government professor also revealed that concern about global warming is not yet a major driver of the public’s energy and energy policy preferences.

“The American public is reluctant to support climate legislation for its own sake, but it expresses wide support for regulation that takes on traditional pollution,” Konisky explains, “Tackling the local environmental harms associated with energy thus amounts to a large first step toward reducing U.S. carbon emissions.”

The EPA administrator said in the 40-plus year history of the agency, the EPA’s goal has been to tackle environmental challenges while simultaneously fostering American ingenuity that can bolster the economy and the public good.

“This is all about growing the economy and cleaning the environment – it’s progress we can all share in,” said McCarthy. “So if there’s one lesson that we should learn, and we should have learned by now, is that real economic progress — and in terms of today, real energy progress — never comes at the price of economic growth and it should never result in increased health risks.”

Powerful Ideas

The event also hosted two panel discussions on “Overcoming the Disconnect in American Public Opinion” and “Harnessing Popular Opinion for a Sustainable Energy Policy.”

Experts on the panels included Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker; Phil Sharp, president of Resources for the Future; Eric Holdsworth, director of climate programs at the Edison Electric Institute; and Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal program

“Today we will attempt to address the complex question of energy policy and climate change,” said McCourt School of Public Policy Dean Edward Montgomery during his introductory remarks. “I’m proud to be part of a community producing such powerful ideas and promoting dialogue on such diverse set of society’s most pressing challenges.”

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