Friday, October 12, 2007

Leading the Fight Against Climate Change (and Peak Oil): Is the Next President the Most Important in U.S. History?

First, a big congratulations to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The global significance of this award provides yet another demonstration of the increasing realization of (most) world leaders that unless we take action fast and take action now, climate change is going to pose a huge challenge to life as we know it sooner than we'd like.

Thus as we approach the 2008 elections, it is becoming clear that with the threats posed by unexpectedly rapid climate change looming larger each year, the next president of the United States will be the most important in America's history. This president will need to mount a New Deal-like 'One Hundred Days of Climate Action', which both leads the world in staving off a climate catastrophe, and weans America (and the world) from our increasingly precarious dependence on oil.

Such are the conclusions of David Orr, William S. Becker, James Gustave Speth, and former Senator Gary Hart in four superb articles published in the August, 2007 issue of the journal, Conservation Biology. The articles, says Orr, were the conclusion "of a small group convened by Ray Anderson, Jonathan Lash, and Bill Becker in 2006 to discuss leadership and sustainability."

One of the outcomes of the meeting, says Orr, was "the formation of an effort to define the first steps that must be taken by the new administration in 2009 to create and implement a climate action plan adequate to the emergency ahead. We focused on the first 100 days so as to shed light on the critical importance of the first steps in a new direction."

One Hundred Days of Climate Action

Back in the first 100 days of the Roosevelt Administration -- which Orr's 100 days of climate action is modeled after -- the crisis at hand was much more tangible: the debilitating economic conditions of The Great Depression. Today's crisis of accelerating climate change is, as of yet at least, not nearly as tangible to most Americans. Of course, that could easily change quite quickly, as it did for thousands of Gulf Coast residents following Hurricane Katrina. The prospect of more frequent and intense Katrina-level climate disasters -- from hurricanes to tornadoes to floods to droughts -- hammers home the reality that, as Orr emphasizes, "it will be far cheaper to act now than at some other date, by which time effective action of any kind will be difficult or impossible." (a possibility that insurance companies are certainly worried about)

Orr recommends that the next president make 10 key choices to shift our country, and eventually the world, to a largely emissions-free energy infrastructure over the next 50 years:
1. The president must make a climate action plan the linchpin connecting other issues including policies for security, economy, environment, and justice.

2. The president elect and the transition group must identify unusually talented potential appointees who can quickly gain public confidence and command the machinery of government, and who share a commitment to act decisively to meet the challenges posed by climate change.
We cannot afford any more of the crippling cronyism and incompetence in key positions that has characterized the current administration.
3. The president must rise above the divisions of right and left, stake out common ground, and present a vision of the safer, healthier, more secure America that we can achieve by confronting climate change.

4. The president must craft a communications strategy that rapidly educates the public about the science of climate change and the risks of a delayed response, and shows a plausible way forward consonant with economic advantage and our national heritage. The goal is to create a broad and stable coalition around the national interest in climate stability that protects our long-term security and prosperity and distributes the costs and benefits fairly.

To ensure that the public is adequately informed, not mislead and deliberately confused, the president should direct the Federal Communications Commission, among other things, to reinstate the "fair and balanced" standard necessary to hold a license to broadcast over the public airwaves.
5. The president should outline a course in which we rapidly remove carbon from the U.S. energy system. This policy would (1) reduce our dependence on imported fuels; (2) minimize our vulnerability to political conflicts in unstable parts of the world, (3) reduce our balance of payments deficit and money going to fund terrorist groups; (4) lower the total costs of energy, notably those costs that are now externalized; (5) generate better technology and a better economy; (6) create good and stable jobs; (7) improve air and water quality; (8) protect public health; (9) lower health costs; and (10) reduce the influence of entrenched energy industries on U.S. politics.
The right energy policy, emphasizes Orr, "should solve many different problems including that of climate change and national security while providing other collateral benefits."
6. The president should expand the federal capacity to implement climate policy consistently across all aspects of government, from assessing new technologies (ala the Office of Technology Assessment, which was terminated in 1994) to responding to disasters (a need that was clearly demonstrated by Hurricane Katrina).

7. The president would be wise to initiate a longer-term effort to reign in the power of money in politics - which has badly corrupted the policy process and rendered it largely ineffective for solving America's most pressing problems. Although there is no shortage of ideas on how to do so, the best solution would be to remove money from the electoral process once and for all by publicly financing elections to national offices.

8. In the first 100 days, the president must take bold steps to rejoin the international community on climate, security, and economic issues. There is no prospect of stabilizing climate without a coordinated global effort. The world is waiting for U.S. leadership to help create a global partnership on climate policy.

9. Federal action is necessary, but not sufficient. The next president should create a national commission on local responses to climate change focused on the steps required to build locally and regionally resilient economies, food systems, and distributed energy networks that would enhance the capacity to withstand disruptions caused by climate change.
Orr cites the model of the Civilian Conservation Corps as a good model of how the government can organize a rapid mass-proliferation of wind farms and solar technologies, and help improve energy efficiency in low-income communities.
10. The next president must change the spirit of this country, exorcising the fears that have manifested in demons that haunt our nights and darken our days. In the light of higher purpose and clearer vision we might once again be a great, not merely powerful, nation.
The Most Important President and Us

William S. Becker, in the article following Orr's, agrees that "I think we can say without exaggeration that the American people are about to elect the most important president in our history." He emphasizes, however, that the responsibility to solve the climate crisis lies not only with the president, but also with the American people, who, he says, must end their reluctance to be lead. Becker elegantly states that:

"As a people, we need to be smarter, tougher, more entrepreneurial, and eager to regain our edge as a culture of invention and industry. We must show that our opposite thumbs still have capabilities beyond operating the remote control and that we still deserve to be called the most intelligent species."

"We will have to wake up from the dull denial that masks the cruel ironies of our mindset. We stick yellow magnetic "support our troops" ribbons on the back of our urban assault vehicles while we fill their insatiable tanks with gasoline, enriching nations that support the terrorists our troops are presumably in the Middle East to fight."

He concludes that:
"The challenge Orr describes so well for the next president is really the challenge that faces us all. We must be willing to accept the feedback coming from the ecosystem; to raise the standards of politics, government, and leadership; and to give our candidates and leaders permission to be bold."
Indeed, the fight versus climate change requires big, bold steps from the next president, Congress, local governments, businesses, and the American people alike. The good news, which I emphasize time and again on this blog, is that working to implement climate change solutions will provide all Americans with a much-needed positive vision and a beacon of hope to aspire to as a nation: growing a new, more stable renewable energy-powered economy, improving our public health and national security, and protecting the health of the earth's wondrous ecosystems and biodiversity. Perhaps most important to our quality of life, it will help us to prepare for and sidestep the potentially calamitous consequences of another looming threat -- Peak Oil.

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