Climate change has become such a highly charged issue between the parties that very few points of agreement, if any, can be found. But one voice is trying to find a middle ground in an attempt to turn the debate around.
Christine Todd Whitman, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency under former President George W. Bush, says climate change is a Republican issue. After all, it was Richard Nixon who created the EPA.
"This is a Republican issue," Whitman said in an interview with the Washington Examiner. But efforts to "starve the agency" is where the party shines best these days, she said. Part of the problem resides with how good a job the EPA did in the early days after it was created, so that further action now doesn't seem necessary.
"We were successful in cleaning up the air, which is part of our problem," she said. "We were too successful."
Now, people don't see the air, the smog and smell the sulfur dioxide, which drove the citizens' movement in the early 1970s to get the government to act, she said. But Whitman is optimistic. She said she believes a middle ground can be found in arguing that, just like pollution, improved health and well-being is where the parties can come together on global warming.
Many scientists blame greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for raising the temperature of the Earth, resulting in more severe weather, droughts, famine and sea-level rise.
Whitman says health issues are increasingly being linked to global warming and greenhouse gas pollution. She notes that just last week, a new report out of China linked obesity rates in children to climate change.
"Climate change has become so contentious," she said, that it's better to "talk about it more from the perspective of health." She said having a debate over the science is too heated and too abstract for average Americans.
"It's hard to relate to the broad issue of climate change," she said. "Most people have other things to worry about." The economy and other issues get in the way. People struggling to provide food for their children find it impossible to think they can have any impact.
Whitman is co-chairwoman of the CASEnergy Coalition that works to promote the benefits of nuclear energy, which she said is essential to meeting the targets set out by President Obama and the international community to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Through the coalition, she is meeting with state and local groups to educate them on why the country needs to keep its nuclear fleet operating. The U.S. has the largest fleet of fissile-fuel reactors in the world, but the revolution in shale gas production — and the historically low prices of natural gas it has caused — has put added pressure on the nuclear power industry. It has slowed nuclear power development, as utilities are investing in gas-fired power plants that take less time and expense to construct.
Whitman says nuclear plants have to be considered a part of the climate change solution, though states continue to consider closing them. "You have to say what are you going to replace it with," she said. "Renewables aren't there yet."
Nuclear power plants comprise a large chunck of the nation's zero-emission energy that can produce electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week, compared to renewables that are intermittent power producers. But the administration appears to be backing renewables as the best bet for a low-emission future.
Whitman has mixed views on President Obama's climate change agenda, the centerpiece of which is the EPA's Clean Power Plan. The plan directs states to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by a third by 2030. She sees a need for a nationwide policy to cut emissions to give the power industry certainty. But at the same time, the Clean Power Plan, created under section 111d of the Clean Air Act, may not be the best solution.
"Ultimately we need something like the Clean Power Plan," but at the same time, "111d is not necessarily the right path."
The Clean Power Plan is referred to as 111d because of the section of the Clean Air Act that gives the EPA the authority to enact regulations for existing power plants. But using that section to impose a climate plan on states places the EPA on shaky legal ground, she said. "It is problematic, it is open to question."
Questions over the EPA's legal authority to impose the plan are at the center of a lawsuit before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals by 30 states and dozens of aligned groups. Adding to the questions over the plan's legality, the Supreme Court agreed with states last month to stay the Clean Power Plan until all legal fights over the rule have been decided.
At the same time, the EPA's critics do not always recognize that the high court has recognized the agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and in many cases the EPA is legally required to do so, she said.
The EPA is "very restricted" in many ways on the issue, she said.