Guest Columnist

Iowa lawmakers can act on climate change

The University of Iowa Power Plant is seen on West Burlington Street in Iowa City on Oct. 18, 2018. The plant, which produces the steam that powers the UI campus, has been shifting its fuel source from coal to renewable and post-consumer sources such as pellets made from non-recycleable plastics, paper and miscanthus. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The University of Iowa Power Plant is seen on West Burlington Street in Iowa City on Oct. 18, 2018. The plant, which produces the steam that powers the UI campus, has been shifting its fuel source from coal to renewable and post-consumer sources such as pellets made from non-recycleable plastics, paper and miscanthus. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

In the four years I have served as ranking member on the Environmental Protection Committee in the Iowa House of Representatives, the committee has produced only six trivial bills signed into law. Environmental protection clearly has not been a priority for Republican leaders.

It’s time for a change. In light of the devastating projections made in the recently-released National Climate Assessment, the Environmental Protection Committee should be redesignated the Climate Action Committee, giving it a serious mandate that Iowans would support and that our land, air and water deserve.

Americans don’t need to rely just on science when it comes to climate change. We can trust our senses as we experience natural catastrophes around the world. Still, these two findings from the National Climate Assessment should drive renewed state emphasis on climate policy action:

• Climate change is causing warmer temperatures and higher humidity levels, eroding soils and making conditions more suitable for pests and pathogens that destroy crops. Without emission reductions and adaptation measures, climate change will bring Midwest agricultural productivity back to 1980 levels by midcentury.

• Global atmospheric warming is making extreme rain events more common; alternating with drought, major flooding has become four times more likely in the 21st century, challenging our infrastructure and continuing Iowa’s run in national disaster declarations.

If the governor and Iowa House leadership get the memo, here are some easy buttons we can be push:

Iowa can join the United States Climate Alliance, a group of states committed to doing their share to achieve the nation’s goals under the Paris Climate Agreement, even though President Donald Trump refuses to commit.

This is the 10th anniversary of the state-commissioned Climate Change Advisory Council report, which offered many recommendations that have not been entertained by policymakers. The General Assembly can support the work of a renewed, private think tank/action engine of experts, starting with the agricultural impacts of our changing atmosphere.

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Iowa State University’s Bioeconomy Institute supports Iowa agriculture in the quest for sustainable sources of fuel, energy, chemicals, and material, such as biochar. Researchers are part of a “New Carbon Economy” consortium launched by the Center for Carbon Removal to identify ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into valuable products and services.

As part of the national Clean Power Plan, Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources mustered Iowa energy stakeholders in a mission to jump-start state-based initiatives. This effort can be renewed with help from the Iowa Energy Center as part of the Iowa Energy Plan recently adopted by the Economic Development Authority.

Abundant help is available to make climate action a reality. Along with legislators from 29 other states, I have participated in the Clean Energy Legislative Academy sponsored by the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University. Directed by former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, the Center is open to assisting Iowa.

The National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) hosted a workshop on electricity markets in Indianapolis. As a member of the NCSL Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee, I have access to the expertise and experience of lawmakers nationwide.

I also attended a two-day national issues forum sponsored by the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators that addressed “bold climate solutions.” These solutions have multiple benefits: Lowering energy costs, creating jobs and diversifying the sources of power supply (contributing to national security), in addition to protecting the environment.

As a state, we don’t need to reinvent any wheels. Here are just a few ideas that would jump-start some good conversations:

• Set a state carbon-reduction goal and require public entities to make plans to do their parts;

• Create a comprehensive soil health program that promote farming practices that sequester carbon as well as improve farmland-soil resilience and productivity.

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• Authorize cities and counties to establish programs in districts where energy improvements can be financed and repaid with cost savings;

• Require disclosure of utility costs and energy efficiency improvements for homes and buildings when they are leased or purchased;

• Establish goals for electric utilities to generate or buy solar energy, including through net-metering policies that account for the environmental benefits of solar generation;

• Require that energy efficiency plans and programs in the state be developed and implemented by an independent commission accountable to the Iowa Utilities Board.

In many respects, thanks to our investments in wind energy, Iowa has already done a lot of heavy lifting toward meeting the United States’ carbon reduction goals. If the governor and other legislative leaders are ready to find common ground for bipartisan collaboration, as Iowa voters expect, then no better place to start than with climate action.

• Iowa Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, is ranking member on the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection.

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