June 19th, 2013


Former Governor of New Jersey; former EPA Administrator

Former Governor of Colorado

From droughts and wildfires to floods and superstorms, the warming planet has already resulted in sad stories for many people in different regions of the US. But are the recent increases in extreme weather events enough to raise public awareness about climate change? Can it affect the political debate on a national level? Two former governors share their experiences dealing with weather emergencies and offer their take on climate awareness in the political world.
During 2012, Superstorm Sandy ravaged the northeast and Colorado experienced record-breaking, devastating forest fires, both products of increasing global temperatures. New Jersey residents had a lot of warning about Superstorm Sandy, but former governor Christine Todd Whitman was shocked by how far inland the damage reached, knocking down hundreds of trees on her farm in the western central part of the state. In Colorado, tens of thousands of residents were forced out of their homes during the worst wildfire season in a decade.
“It's a combination of drought, dry conditions, a longer dry and warm seasons that really are impacting us in a pretty serious way,” said Bill Ritter Jr., who was governor of Colorado from 2007 to 2011.
Whitman believes the federal government should help create funding policies for recovery from these extreme disasters. But since the events have not yet impacted policy on a national level, the change needs to begin at a locally, she said.
“I understand how difficult it is to take on this issue, but we're going to have to look at 'Should we be rebuilding in some of the places that we're rebuilding?',” Whitman said. “And if so, 'Do we do it in a different way?' ”
New Jersey homeowners are rebuilding with caution, with respect to new FEMA maps showing flood-prone destinations. But in Colorado, residents are continuing to build homes in areas known to be fire zones, Ritter said.
“It’s attractive to develop and really to buy a property in sizeable estates, even in places that are forested – it really increases the aesthetic value,” Ritter said. “This is about climate, and this is about drought, and people buying homes 20 years ago weren’t thinking about that, and now some of that's come home to roost.”
The formers governors assessed how current state leaders have addressed disaster response situations. New Jersey governor Chris Christie actively warned people to prepare for the storm, but has been criticized by the far right for “acting like a governor,” and reaching out to the President, said Whitman, who was governor of New Jersey from 2001 to 2003.
Whitman believes the public is beginning to understand that rebuilding costs affect everybody, she said.
“We all pay for the rebuilding, whether it's in New Jersey, or Colorado, or Oklahoma – it affects and impacts all of us because these costs are so massive that no locality, no state can do it all themselves.”
The panelists agreed that the problems with rebuilding are mainly financial, since “states are finding themselves in a position not being able to even provide the kind of state of money they once did,” Ritter said. They discussed the need for campaign finance reform and for citizens to come together to generate change.
“You’ve got these parties that are sort of in their corners, ready to come out boxing, not ready to come out with agreement,” Ritter said. “We've got to elevate the political intensity that really demands common-ground solutions.”
Whitman compared the climate awareness issue to integration in the US, which took decades to implement.
“The only people that can make the change are us,” Whitman said. “This is a democracy. If you want to know where the problem is, look in the mirror – we don't vote the way we should, we don't get in touch with our legislative leaders.”
Many people see green technology as an opportunity to create new jobs and boost the economy. Ritter stressed the need to make a business case of clean energy. He described it as a global economic opportunity – if ignored,  it will be “to our detriment as a nation.” Whitman agreed there is potential for new jobs on many levels, including nuclear energy.
“There are lots of potential jobs in that, and it's the only form of base power that doesn’t release any regulated pollutants or greenhouse gases while it's producing power,” she said.
Ritter said we should think about energy from an emissions perspective.
“What we need most of all is a national energy policy that's a strategy that says, ‘Let's go after it around emissions using domestic energy sources, using American technology that we're producing in our labs and really look at how we get to that 80 percent reduction, but have that be our goal and have it be a national goal that we all embrace.’ ”
Regarding the Obama administration’s efforts to tackle green energy, Whitman said, “Congress has just become a real roadblock to progress in this area.” She hopes the Environmental Protection Agency can improve pollution regulations despite congressional challenges, she said.
“I mean, there's no question that the data is there that we are hurting ourselves if we don't clean up our act in all different ways,” Whitman said.
- Danielle Torrent
Photos by: Lizzy Herrada
Commonwealth Club of California
June 19, 2013
Bill Ritter Jr., Former Governor of Colorado
Christine Todd Whitman, Former Governor of New Jersey; Former Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency