We’re Ready to Go the Distance to Create a Clean Energy Economy

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By Joan Benoit Samuelson

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of my run in the Los Angeles Olympics. As I watched athletes compete in Beijing this past summer and heard about the concerns about pollution and ambient air quality, it reminded me of how I decided to train for the 1984 Olympics in Maine to acclimate myself for what was sure to be a less than optimal air quality in Los Angeles.

It may surprise many, but as the easternmost state in the country, we Mainers live downwind from most of the air pollution produced throughout the United States.

That’s why we tend to have many ozone alert days during the summer months and why we see smog shrouding some of our most valuable natural resources despite the absence of any large or very large nearby industry and relatively little automobile traffic.

Since that time in Los Angeles, I have logged more than 125,000 carbon-free miles, step by step, the lion’s share right here in Maine.

With countless hours to observe the world around me, I’ve become something of a one-woman environmental barometer, and I can personally attest to how climate change and pollution affects Maine. I know Maine winters aren’t as long or as harsh as they used to be and that ice fishing and skiing have suffered as a result. I also recognize that development, green algae blooms from runoff and erosion are topics that need to be addressed.

The good news is that climate change and energy efficiency are now on the legislative agenda in the United States. Congress took a big step forward with the recent introduction of the Waxman-Markey Climate and Energy Bill. The bill addresses in a comprehensive way the interrelated challenges of energy and climate by emphasizing energy efficiency and development of renewable energy.

By expanding energy efficiency and renewable energy, we can reduce pollution and create jobs at the same time. The energy efficiency provisions alone would generate nearly $400 million in energy savings for Maine businesses and consumers, while creating about 740 new jobs in Maine, according to a new study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Despite its small population, Maine is in a critical position to do something to address these issues and ensure this legislation is passed.

I recently met with members of the Maine congressional delegation, and they clearly understand the importance of this issue to the state, to the country and to the world. Our delegation, particularly our two senators, hold disproportionate power in a Senate where one vote may make the difference of whether climate and energy legislation passes this year. (When the stimulus package came to a vote, Maine’s Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe were among three Republican senators who worked with the Obama administration to get the bill through.)

A company with which I have long been associated, Nike, recently joined with other leading American corporations to call for bold action on climate change, not simply because our environment depends on it, but because our economic prosperity does, as well. Together with Levi Strauss, Starbucks, Sun Microsystems, Timberland and others, Nike and the nonprofit group Ceres founded Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP). The fundamental precept of BICEP is that the strong action to spur clean energy and cut global warming pollution will jump-start our ailing economy and create millions of new well-paying jobs.

U.S. Department of Commerce statistics show that investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy create more jobs per dollar than tax cuts, military spending or oil and natural gas development. And a recent study by the Center for American Progress found that $100 billion spent over two years on clean energy incentives could produce two million new jobs.

Too often, the issue is framed as a false choice between the economy and the environment. The old paradigm that environmental protection is the nemesis of job creation is just that: old thinking. During this time of grave concern for climate change, we can sow the seeds for a vibrant, new clean energy economy.

Indeed, the new low-carbon economy promises to spawn entire new industries, major job creation and reduced dependence on imported energy.

But for the promise of the new green economy to become reality, businesses are anxiously awaiting the clear "market signals" that would come from a strong national energy policy to catalyze clean energy sources and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That would be the spark for additional billions, even trillions, of dollars in private investment in renewable and clean energy technologies.

U.S. competitiveness, job creation and a sustainable prosperity all depend on our meeting head-on the formidable challenge of climate change, and there is no time to waste.

In my running career, every challenge is an opportunity to prove myself. Likewise, the climate and energy crisis is an opportunity for America to once again prove itself as a leader in innovation, productivity and job creation.

A clean energy future isn’t a luxury or an illusion; it’s an environmental and economic necessity.


Joan Benoit Samuelson is a Maine native and Olympic athlete. She won the gold medal in the first-ever women’s marathon in 1984. To learn more about BICEP and its climate and energy platform, visit www.ceres.org/bicep.