Perhaps because we live in a remote archipelago, surrounded by millions of square miles of ocean, we’re more sensitive to the changes that climate change will impose on all of us. We like to visit or even live at the beach, for instance, but what if rising sea levels over the next five decades replace our sandy coastline with rocks and thick walls? Such a future isn’t guaranteed, but the odds of its likelihood depend greatly on how our nation uses energy.
Though he’s been in office just a few months, Democrat Brian Schatz, the senior U.S. Senator from Hawaii, is already attempting to quicken his colleagues’ pace on legislation that would deal with climate change. Specifically, Schatz would like see the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative–a joint venture between the state’s government and companies that wants to see 70 percent of Hawaii’s energy in 2030 to come from clean sources–adapted for nationwide use. He’s also proposing legislation that would impose carbon fees on polluting industries that are making climate change worse.
Last week, Schatz and I spoke by phone about these efforts…
MAUITIME: Thanks very much for talking with us on this. Let’s start with what aspects of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative would translate nationwide.
BRIAN SCHATZ: There’s a fair amount of enthusiasm among my colleagues for what we’ve been able to accomplish in Hawaii. First, we’d like to decouple the utilities’ revenues from electricity sales. As long as a utility makes more money selling more energy, it’s difficult to give them incentives for efficiency. We need a new business model.
Energy metering is working very well across the state of Hawaii. There’s been discussion of that on the national level for a while, but it hasn’t been picked up yet.
Also, we want a national energy portfolio standard similar to the 70 percent in the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative.
MT: A 70 percent target seems rather ambitious for the nation, in my opinion. What kind of percentage are you discussing?
SCHATZ: It’s too early to tell. But we need to invest in the next few years in research and development. We need potential game-changers.
MT: Now part of that 70 percent target for Hawaii was an increase in efficiency.
SCHATZ: The most straightforward way to clean energy in the economy is find ways to consume less. The technology to make cooling systems and heating systems more efficient is already proven. We’re looking hard at pushing on the efficiency and conservation side. There’s also a pretty good opportunity for bipartisanship there.
MT: Where else do find opportunities in the Clean Energy Initiative?
SCHATZ: There’s a partnership between the Department of Defense and the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative. Obviously the DOD spends a lot of resources on energy and fuel. Pacific Command is a real leader in this. Admiral [Samuel] Locklear has been tremendous in articulating climate change as a strategic importance in the Pacific Theater. Other commands, and the rest of the DOD, though they’ve made some progress, has not made as much progress as PACOM.
MT: Ok, let’s talk about that proposed carbon fee.
SCHATZ: I introduced, with [Rhode Island Democratic] Senator Sheldon Whitehouse a bill to assess a carbon fee. It’s still being discussed by my colleagues, and we’re getting input on what the best structure would be. We think this is an important discussion to have over the next year or two.
MT: What would the fee entail?
SCHATZ: The fee would be imposed on polluters. Right now we’re talking about [potential fees of] $15, $25 or $35 per ton. We’re discussing how best to return that revenue to the American people, like help with their energy bills or an offset with taxes already paid. We’re trying to leave it relatively open-ended so we can hear from people on both sides of the aisle.
MT: Considering that so-called “cap and trade” policies went nowhere in the last few years, and the Republican Party controls the U.S. House of Representatives, how much a chance does such a fee have?
SCHATZ: I think where we are now is where we were a year or two ago on immigration. It’s fair to say we don’t have the votes now, but if a national politician doesn’t have a real proposal to deal with climate change, it’s almost disqualifying. I’m hopeful that, through the next election cycle, this becomes mandatory.
MT: And yet some still deny the science that backs up climate change in the first place. How much of that have you faced in the Senate?
SCHATZ: Not as much as before. There are plenty of Republicans who will quietly acknowledge the reality of climate change. We’re trying to create a political climate so they can come out of their shell and start voting with us on solutions.