Young leaders drive political momentum toward stable climate

Fred Krupp

This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.

It has become an American tradition: For more than 30 years, the President and First Lady have invited special guests to join the First Lady in her private viewing box during the State of the Union Address — not the famous and powerful, but everyday Americans who have done something extraordinary and represent the best our country has to offer.

Tyrone Davis, who joined the First Lady Tuesday night, certainly fits that profile.

Tyrone decided years ago that he would dedicate his life to protecting the environment. After earning a political science degree and Masters of Public Administration from North Carolina State University, he joined Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Climate Corps program in 2010, which selects and trains top-tier graduate students from the nation’s leading institutions to act as organizational change agents for energy management in companies, cities and universities.

His work in the program had enormous impact: He helped show the Elizabeth City State University how to save more than $31,000 annually and avoid 200 tons of carbon emissions every year. His work was so impressive that the school then hired him to complete a campus-wide sustainability plan. Thanks in part to his efforts, ECSU went on to make sustainability a core part of the school’s mission.

Tyrone, who is legally blind, thrives on challenges. It’s fitting that such an extraordinary young man — who embodies everything we hope EDF Climate Corps can achieve — was able to sit with the First Lady and hear President Obama renew his commitment to fighting climate change. Obama’s call for common sense energy policies that will create jobs and reduce carbon pollution are central to the mission of EDF Climate Corps, which has trained hundreds of young leaders like Tyrone. Thanks to them EDF Climate Corps has amassed a remarkable record of achievement:

  • More than 250 companies, cities and universities — including Apple, Cisco, Facebook, CSX, General Motors and the U.S. Army — have hired EDF Climate Corps fellows to take their energy management programs to the next level.
  • EDF Climate Corps fellows have uncovered nearly $1.3 billion in energy savings and opportunities to avoid more than 1.3 million metric tons of carbon emissions.
  • Our fellows have found enough energy savings to power 180,000 homes and avoid the yearly carbon emissions of 260,000 cars. And they are becoming the next generation of corporate sustainability leaders.

EDF Climate Corps’ work reflects the growing interest of some of the largest corporations in America in tackling climate change head-on. As The New York Times recently reported, corporate giants like Coca-Cola and Nike recognize that climate change poses huge financial risks, and are taking action to address them. And two dozen of the biggest corporations in the United States -including five oil companies - are already including carbon prices in their financial plans in anticipation of an eventual government requirement for them to do so.

Stories like these are evidence that energy savings and environmental stewardship go hand in hand. And they are driving political momentum in support of the next crucial step toward a stable climate - new federal carbon pollution standards for power plants, the No. 1 source of climate pollution in the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency, as part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, has proposed the nation’s first-ever limits on carbon pollution from new power plants.

Most Americans would be shocked to know that there are no current limits whatsoever on carbon pollution from power plants, which produce 2 billion tons of this pollution each year, or about 40 percent of the nation’s total. By setting the first such standards in history, these rules will help modernize our power system, ensuring that our electricity is reliable, affordable, healthy and clean. And they can give industry the flexibility it needs to make cost-effective investments in clean energy technologies.

There is still much work to be done before we can begin to say we are turning the corner toward a more stable climate. But young leaders like Tyrone Davis should give all of us hope.