Monday, February 09, 2009

Charting a Bold Course to Become a Sustainable Nation

Blogger's note: Denis Hayes gave an impressive and enlightening speech today on the UAlbany campus as he delved into what he believes is necessary for the United States to become a sustainable nation in which to live by the year 2050. There were too many details to remember or share here, but the article below covers a bit of it. A few pieces of the course that Denis sets are:
  • a radical commitment to energy efficiency, including a reduction in personal energy usage by every American to 25% of today's energy needs
  • a reliance on solar energy for 50% of America's energy needs
  • an immediate and dramatic shift in our nation's solar energy production capacity
  • a shift from interdependency to community self-reliance and self-sustainability, including a shift to local foods and local sources of energy

Climate Solutions: Charting a Bold Course
by Denis Hayes
Yale Environment 360
June 10, 2008

More than 30 years ago, President Jimmy Carter called for a daring transition to a new energy future, an effort he likened to “the moral equivalent of war.” But the hard truth is that the United States is in far worse shape in the energy realm today than it was when Carter left office.

Since 1981, annual greenhouse gas emissions have grown from 4.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to 5.9 billion metric tons. America imported 1.6 billion barrels of oil in 1981; by 2007 imports had ballooned to 3.7 billion barrels. Today, oil prices have surged past $130 per barrel, and the best evidence suggests that total global oil production is at or nearing its peak. Under President Carter, America dominated the world in renewable energy research, development, and commercialization, but in the ensuing decades our federal government has thrown away that lead.

With the economy now staggering from its addiction to oil, and with evidence of global warming having persuaded all but the knuckle-draggers, is America at last getting serious about freeing itself from carbon fuels?

Actually, no. Most environmentally sensitive politicians and even many national green groups are remarkably blithe that the Lieberman-Warner bill — a 500-page cap-and-trade law filled with more holes than a Madonna dance outfit — will take us there.

The tragedy is that we still have a chance to solve the global warming crisis, but we are blowing it by chasing false hopes in the form of an inadequate cap-and-trade bill.

Acting fast enough and on a large enough scale to avoid unthinkable climate consequences will require a more ambitious effort than the New Deal, the Interstate Highway System, and the Manhattan Project, all rolled into one. Serious efforts to stabilize the world’s climate will have dramatic consequences for industry, transportation, architecture, agriculture, leisure, and consumerism, and so, many of these changes will be fought tooth and nail — as was evident last week when Republican Senators attacked and derailed the Lieberman-Warner bill, forcing Democratic leaders to place the initiative on hold until a new president takes office.

The truth is that all our largest current energy sources will need to be replaced by new sources — over the ferocious opposition of the powerful companies that market them.

The story of how we got into this crunch is a tale of political opportunism and shortsightedness. For had America continued on the course we’d embarked upon in the mid-1970s, the task ahead would now be much less expensive, much less painful, and much more certain of success.

In 1979, after the Arab oil embargo, Carter announced that by the year 2000 America was to get at least one-fifth of all its energy from renewable sources — mainly solar energy, wind, and biofuels. The Solar Energy Research Institute, which I then served as director, was at the heart of this effort. Leading a team of scientists and analysts drawn from national labs and major universities, SERI prepared the detailed technical and policy blueprint to meet or surpass the 20 percent goal.

In 1981, halfway through his first year in office, President Ronald Reagan abandoned the 20 percent goal, reduced SERI’s $125 million budget by $100 million, and installed a dentist named Jim Edwards as Secretary of Energy. To demonstrate his contempt for the notion of alternative energy, Reagan ordered the solar water heaters ripped off the White House roof. We’ve never recovered.

The successive administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, bobbing along on a sea of cheap oil, did little to shift America’s economy to renewable energy sources. And for the past seven years, the United States has been led by a president who projects such a breathtaking marriage of arrogance and incompetence that his refusal to even acknowledge the reality of climate change has not generally been considered one of his more glaring flaws.

As climate science has grown increasingly clear, many corporate CEOs have become convinced that global warming has a human signature. The brightest CEOs of Fortune 100 companies realized that once the Democrats took back control of Congress, it would be only a matter of time before climate legislation was enacted. The next president, whoever it is, will demand action. These CEOs all wanted to be at the table — in Washington, if you aren’t at the table, you’re likely to wind up on the menu.

Environmental groups soon found themselves being courted by business leaders who recognized that the climate threat would require a serious national response. They formed the U.S. Climate Action Partnership and other alliances that offered benefits for environmentalists but also entailed subtle costs. The most obvious benefit was that environmental leaders are taken more seriously on Capitol Hill when they arrive linking arms with the CEOs of General Electric, Caterpillar, DuPont, and General Motors.

The cost was the natural downside of consensus building: Policies cannot significantly harm the core interests of any of the participants. When the participants include the world’s largest automobile company, the largest manufacturer of jet engines, the largest maker of mining equipment for coal and bituminous sands, etc., this is not an insignificant cost.

What emerged from this unexpected alliance was a consensus that the centerpiece of climate policy should be a cap on CO2, generally applied as close to the point of emission as realistically possible. Additionally, there was widespread agreement that (a) between 25 percent and 80 percent of all emissions permits should be given away to major emitters for a transitional period; (b) the law should provide ample “offsets” available for purchase by companies failing to meet reduction targets; and (c) “safety valves” should permit relaxed enforcement in case greenhouse gas reductions cause temporary economic hardship.

Unfortunately, these are genuinely terrible ideas. They are not bad because they lack ambition; rather, they are bad because they move boldly in the wrong direction. They don’t merely ignore the way that the global economy responds to real-world policies; they ignore everything we have learned about human nature since Rousseau’s belief in humanity’s innate goodness crashed on the shoals of 18th-century reality.

So what should a serious energy and climate policy look like?
  • Carbon Must be Capped Where It Enters the Economy, Not Where It Leaves It
  • Use Auction Revenues Intelligently
  • Promote Renewable Energy
  • Construct a Resilient Nationwide Smart Grid to Take Power from Anywhere to Anywhere
  • Get Serious about Automobile Mileage
  • Build High-Speed Electrified Railways for Our Busiest Corridors
  • Set Strong Building Energy Performance Standards
  • Train the Labor Force
[Read details here:]

Following decades of political denial of climate science, America now lags far behind Europe and Japan in creating most of the basic building blocks for a carbon-neutral era. In several core renewable energy technologies, we have already been passed by China.

It’s not too late to get back in the game. But the global industry is rapidly expanding and maturing, and it has supportive government policies in Germany, Japan, the Nordic states, the Netherlands, South Korea, and China.

America has unparalleled scientific and engineering excellence, formidable financial muscle, bountiful natural resources, a democratic political system, and an entrepreneurial culture well-suited to helping to lead the world into a prosperous, carbon-neutral era. But we have been dragging our heels, as if this were a problem for our children to fix.

Global warming is our problem, and it’s time to get serious about solving it.

© 2008-2009 Yale University


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