Climate Change Success: Q&A with Ken Kimmell, President of the Union of Concerned Scientists

Ken Kimmell, President of the
Union of Concerned Scientists

Climate change is a perennial hot topic. Turn on any news source and you’re sure to see headlines covering multiple facets from all sides. The Union of Concerned Scientists remains one of the leading voices for mitigating climate change.

CleanTech Alliance is hosting Ken Kimmell, President of the Union of Concerned Scientist for a lunch event on March 26. The event aims to spark discussion on the current state of climate change as well as the prospects and impediments for success. Particular emphasis will be placed on U.S. policy, international negotiations, and advancements at the state level.

Leading into the March 26 event, Ken answered five questions as a preview. Interested in hearing more? Register today.


Governor Inslee stated that climate change is ravaging Washington State and threatening our grandchildren. Madeleine Albright called climate change the gravest threat to national security. Why exactly is climate change such a big threat?

Washington residents, like people across America, are already seeing impacts from global warming resulting from the build-up of heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere. Shellfish hatcheries are failing because of an acidifying ocean, record-breaking wildfires are destroying forests and communities, and declining snowpack and earlier snowmelt in the mountains are jeopardizing summer water supplies.

The Pacific Northwest has already warmed at least 1.3 degrees since 1895, and climate models project temperatures here to increase between three and nine degrees by the end of this century, depending on whether we reduce or continue to increase our global warming emissions. These changes will affect many industries in the state, including:

  • The timber industry, which generates $16 billion each year in gross business revenues and supports 45,000 jobs;

  • The shellfish industry, valued at $270 million, which produces one quarter of the nation’s oysters and supports 3,200 jobs;

  • Tourism, which contributes $17 billion annually to the state’s economy; and

  • Hydroelectricity production, which accounts for 70 percent of Washington’s electricity supply.

Nationally, we’ve seen the effects of climate change in Californian droughts, floods on the East Coast, catastrophic wildfires in the West—all creating conditions that are dangerous to our food supplies, our economies, and our health and safety, and unsustainable for our future.

Members of all political affiliations are starting to acknowledge that climate change is real. Why now and what does it mean for real change moving forward?

First of all, I agree whole-heartedly with the premise of this question. A recent poll conducted by Stanford University and published in The New York Times reveals that people of all political affiliations are coming to a consensus on climate change. Nearly half of Republican respondents reported they’d be less likely to vote for a political candidate who thought global warming was a hoax, and 60 percent of Republican respondents agreed with the majority of Democratic respondents that the federal government should limit the amount of greenhouse gases produced by businesses.

There are many reasons for this shift in perception. Over the years, a variety of organizations have been successfully communicating what the science tells us about climate change: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; the National Climate Assessment, whose 2014 report was especially powerful; the Risky Business organization and their report. The media is responding, picking up and running with stories on climate change nearly every day.

And of course, the Union of Concerned Scientists has had a hand in bringing attention to climate change. We focus on every part of the country that’s affected by global warming: national heritage sites that are at risk; the danger to coastal cities from tidal flooding; the increase of devastating wildfires in the Rocky Mountains.

These efforts add up to progress in the fight against climate change—especially in conjunction with trends in the marketplace that are going in the same direction. If you scratch the surface of partisan divide, you’ll see that a lot of efforts are being made in states where you might not expect them. Georgia, for instance, is the second-largest market for electric vehicles behind California. Texas is the largest producer of wind energy in the country. There’s now enough of a critical mass to make major changes at the state level.

At the national level, conversations are starting about bipartisan solutions for climate change around carbon pricing. Some Republicans are adding their voices, including former U.S. Treasurer Hank Paulson. I see this momentum continuing as both parties increasingly realize that climate change is real and we need solutions.

From cap and trade to fuel taxes, Washington State has a number of sustainability initiatives that are pending. What is your take on these initiatives?

Washington State is showing exciting leadership on two top policy priorities that we at the Union of Concerned Scientists share:

  • Establishing a price on carbon pollution to remove the hidden subsidy for fossil fuels and incent clean alternatives; and

  • Increasing the use of clean fuels, such as biofuels and electricity, to reduce oil use and the carbon emissions associated with transportation fuels.

A market-based program to price carbon–such as a cap-and-trade program or a carbon tax–is a smart, cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions. Pricing carbon in Washington would encourage the growth of a local clean energy economy and drive innovation in new technologies to reduce pollution. In addition, a price on carbon would generate significant revenue that could be put toward everything from education to clean energy. Carbon pricing policies are already being used successfully in California, the nine Northeast states that participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and Washington’s neighboring Canadian province of British Columbia, helping those regions cut carbon, grow their clean energy sectors, generate significant revenue, and achieve public health benefits from reduced air pollution.

Regarding clean fuels, transportation accounts for nearly half of Washington’s global warming emissions, and drivers spend $15 billion on petroleum fuel each year. That means it is critical to reduce emissions from the transportation sector. The Union of Concerned Scientists is a strong supporter of low-carbon fuel standards that require fuel supplies to get gradually cleaner over time. Fortunately, Washington has tremendous potential to produce a variety of cleaner fuels that can reduce carbon emissions of the state’s fuel supply. The state is already producing significant quantities of biofuels from environmentally sustainable local resources, and is poised to produce much more, including:

  • Low-carbon biodiesel from canola oil and used cooking oil;

  • Renewable natural gas from wastewater treatment facilities and landfills; and

  • Advanced ethanol from wood wastes and sustainable biomass.

What are the top three industry technologies and trends that you’re tracking for 2015?

First, we’re closely watching the trajectories in pricing for wind and solar energy. In the U.S. solar energy market, we’ve seen dramatic reductions in price that make a huge difference in how quickly the technology will ramp up. In the wind market, our concern is that the federal production tax credit, which expires every two years, and which gives wind producers tax rebates by the kilowatt-hour, has not been renewed for 2015. This may cause capital to flow out of wind technology, and therefore some of the gains we’ve made in price reduction may not be consistent.

Second, UCS scientists and analysts are studying the integration of renewable energy into the power grid. We’re tracking how states with a high percentage of renewable energy can maintain a reliable and low-cost grid while incorporating more wind and solar.

California in particular will deploy much more solar power over the next two years. The state’s largest grid operator is coordinating energy markets with other Western states in order to use a more diverse and larger set of power plants to manage the intermittency of wind and solar power. What’s exciting is that we may be seeing just the tip of the iceberg in terms of more coordination between California and other Western U.S. electricity systems. More effective coordination can decrease the cost of renewable integration and allow us to add even more wind and solar to our power system.

Finally, while renewables present some new challenges to the grid, they also offer a unique opportunity to reduce emissions in the transportation sector, which account for more than a quarter of U.S. global warming emissions. We’re excited about the prospects here because plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) topped 100,000 in new sales in 2014, and utilities, automakers, and regulators are already working together to maximize the use of renewables in charging EVs.

For example, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California demonstrated the ability to reduce, stop, and restart vehicle charging for multiple vehicles. This capability could allow EV owners to reduce charging demand during times of peak load, and also time their charging to occur when renewables are at peak generation. An EV might be parked at a workplace for eight hours each day, but the two hours of charging it needs could be conducted at the optimal time. This flexible load strategy could translate to lower charging costs for EV owners, while providing benefits to the grid at the same time. In addition to charging EVs at the best times, it’s possible that energy stored in vehicles could even be put back on the grid when needed.

What three things do you hope attendees will take away from the March 26 lunch event?

One: We face a huge, daunting challenge of reducing our emissions in time to ward off the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. The reductions have to be large and they have to happen now.

Two: The Obama administration is making some significant progress—but is limited because climate change hasn’t yet become a bipartisan issue. Therefore, the President has to use his existing laws, as opposed to new laws, to deal with this problem.

Three: Until that changes, states will really be the driving force for addressing climate change in the U.S. Fortunately, many states, including Washington, are implementing significant measures that could become national models. The choices we make today—in Washington and throughout the world—will shape the climate our children and grandchildren inherit.

Interested in hearing more? Register today to attend our March 26 lunch session with Ken Kimmell, President of the Union of Concerned Scientists.