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Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

  • Aru Pande

Geoff Mirkin climbs up to the top of a small, unassuming building in Elkridge, Maryland – about 50 kilometers outside of Washington – and points to the solar panels that line the roof.

“We get 70 percent of our electricity from these panels," Mirkin said.

In the six years since co-founding Solar Energy World, he has seen the solar-panel installation company grow from just three employees to more than 50.

“The economics work. We can finance programs for people, we can make it so that solar can beat utility and the bigger thing is that there is a lot of job creation,” Mirkin said.

Energy summit

President Barack Obama highlighted this growth in the solar industry during Monday’s National Clean Energy Summit, noting the United States generates 20 times as much solar power as it did in 2008.

“The world’s largest solar installation came online last year, with 9 million solar panels, generating enough electricity to power more than 100,000 homes with clean, renewable energy – not in Germany, not in China, not in Saudi Arabia – right here in the United States of America,” Obama said.

Just a day after returning from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation, Obama was on a plane to Las Vegas, where he announced initiatives aimed at making renewable energy sources, including solar, more affordable for American households.

And as the Iran nuclear debate and the U.S. presidential campaign heat up, the U.S. leader is keeping his focus on the fight against climate change, an issue he has long called the greatest threat to national security.

Just weeks after announcing an ambitious plan to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, Obama is rebuffing opponents in the Republican Party and fossil fuel industry who say such measures hurt the economy, and embarking on a climate change tour that takes him from Nevada to New Orleans to Alaska.

Arctic visit

Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Alaska's Arctic region next week, where he will highlight the effects of global warming.

Benton Strong, with the Center for American Progress, described what Obama will see when he visits the Arctic Circle.

"Some villagers and natives ... are literally seeing their villages melt into the ocean. He [the president] is also going to go the place where there [is] more acreage of wildfire damage than any other place in the country, so he is going to be able to see some of the impacts of climate change,” Strong said.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest says during the president's visit to New Orleans Thursday, he will not only focus on the “remarkable revival” of the city 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, but the need to make infrastructure more resilient to climate change, as more and more coastal areas deal with rising sea levels.

“I think we have been pretty clear that there is not any one weather event that can be directly attributed to climate change but there is no denying what scientists tell us, which is that that there is reason to be concerned about these storms getting worse and more violent,” Earnest told reporters Wednesday.

Strong, formerly with the Climate Action Plan, said given the opposition in the Republican-dominated Congress, the president has felt the need to step up on the issue, at the domestic and international levels.

'Part of his legacy'

“That has shown over the last couple of years with historic agreements with China, India, etc.,” Strong said. “When you look 30, 40, 50 years out, him addressing climate change and leading the world on climate change will probably be the largest part of his legacy.”

As for Mirkin, the Solar Energy World vice president, he said he does not understand opposition to government initiatives focused on renewable energy, noting the fossil fuel industry has received subsidies for decades.

“Solar has kind of been drawn into the political battle, and it shouldn’t be. For the record I am a Republican, but I believe in solar for a number of reasons, the economics, the environment. I have children and I care about their future," he said.

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