By William S. Becker

Thirteen years ago, George W. Bush was president. He was no friend of climate action or of sustainable development. I worked at the U.S. Department of Energy at the time, where we were “discouraged” from talking about these things, just as federal employees are now. So, I took a two-year sabbatical from DOE and organized a series of conferences at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, WI.  I called them the National Leadership Summits for a Sustainable America, and I invited some of the nation’s best known thought leaders. Several of you reading this were there.

Among other things, we developed a set of principles that we believed should guide the United States’ role in dealing with global climate change. We circulated them. Several hundred activists and concerned citizens signed on. 

I dusted them off recently and re-read them. They’ve held up pretty well all these years, except that “effective action” today means net-zero carbon by mid-century. They remind me how little progress we in the United States have made on this incredibly dangerous crisis. Now, two presidents later and a third on the way, maybe the 2020 election will finally result in us rejoining the international community to do something about climate change. Fingers crossed. But I can’t help thinking how much easier it might have been if we had started 13 years ago and persisted ever since.

Here are the Wingspread Principles:

Wingspread Principles on the U.S. Response to Global Warming

 URGENCY: Global warming is real and it is happening now. Every year that we delay action to reduce emissions makes the problem more painful and more expensive – and makes the unavoidable consequences more severe. Leaders in government, business, labor, religion and the other elements of civil society must rally the American people to action.

EFFECTIVE ACTION: The U.S. must set enforceable limits on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to significantly reduce them within the next 10 years and should work with other nations to achieve a global reduction in absolute GHG emissions of 60 – 80% below 1990 levels by mid-century. Experience proves that voluntary measures alone cannot solve the problem. Aggressive government action, including mandates based on sound science, is imperative and must be implemented now.

CONSISTENCY AND CONTINUITY OF PURPOSE: Climate stabilization requires sustained action over several decades to achieve deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions throughout the economy. With its frequent changes of leadership and priorities, however, the American political system does not lend itself to long-term commitments. Leaders in both government and civil society must shape policies and institutions that ensure sustained climate protection.

OPPORTUNITY: Mitigating and adapting to global warming offer the opportunity to create a new energy economy that is cleaner, cheaper, healthier and more secure. We must awaken America‘s entrepreneurial spirit to capture this opportunity.

PREDICTABILITY: Measures that signal investors, corporate decision makers and consumers of the certainty of future reductions are essential to change the economy.

FLEXIBILITY: Deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions demand and will drive innovation. Our economy will innovate most efficiently if it is given the flexibility to achieve ambitious goals through a variety of means, including market-based incentives and/or trading.

EVERYONE PLAYS: Measures to stabilize the climate must change the behaviors of business, industry, agriculture, government, workers and consumers. All sectors and the public must be engaged in changing both infrastructure and social norms.

MULTIPLE BENEFITS: Actions to stabilize, mitigate or adapt to global warming should be considered alongside other environmental, economic and social imperatives that can act synergistically to produce multiple benefits – for example, “smart growth” practices that conserve forests and farmland while reducing the use of transportation fuels. Many actions to stabilize climate offer local, regional and national, as well as global, benefits.

ACCURATE MARKET SIGNALS: The true and full societal costs of greenhouse gas emissions, now often externalized, should be reflected in the price of goods and services to help consumers make more informed choices and to drive business innovation. Policymakers should eliminate perverse incentives that distort market signals and exacerbate global warming.

PRUDENT PREPARATION: Mounting climatic changes already are adversely affecting public health and safety as well as America‘s forests, water resources, and fish and wildlife habitat. As the nation works to prevent the most extreme impacts of global warming, we also must adapt to the changes already underway and prepare for more.

INTERNATIONAL SOLUTIONS: U.S. government and civil society must act now to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of the actions of other nations. Because greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change are global, however, the ultimate solutions also must be global. The U.S. must reengage constructively in the international process.

FAIRNESS: We must strive for solutions that are fair among people, nations and generations.


Photo: The Johnson Foundation’s Wingspread Conference Center