Climate and energy: what the United States needs

Timothy E Wirth
25 May 2005

A nation-state that can seize the opportunities of an energy policy that addresses global climate change will create a double benefit: it will enhance its own national security and it will afford the world’s poorest people a chance to participate in the modern global economy. As an American, this is what I would like to see the United States do.

Climate change is real. We know this from examining ice cores, seabed sediments, and other data. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher today than it has been for hundreds of thousands of years. Carbon acts as glass does with a greenhouse, letting heat in but not allowing it to escape. And we know that global temperatures are increasing. None of these facts is any longer in doubt.

The question now is what to do about it. That’s why openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change is so welcome and timely.

The pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million. Current energy usage trends worldwide clearly point to a coming excess of 550 parts per million. By the late 21st-century, we will have doubled and perhaps tripled the concentration of carbon that existed before the industrial revolution. This means sharply increased temperatures.

Don’t miss the other articles and features in openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change

This warming so far has reached one degree Celsius in terms of global average temperature. The Arctic is melting, sea levels are rising, desertification is increasing, species are moving, plants are blooming earlier in the year, and patterns are changing in the habitat and migration of birds: one indication after another that the world is starting to warm very significantly.

The goal must be to stabilise the concentration of carbon at double the historic record. In order to do that, the world needs to cut emissions by at least two-thirds, or about 70% percent, by the year 2050.

It is an enormous challenge. But it is also a very significant opportunity if those of us in the United States take the right policy steps, building the right political constituency, and both invent and deploy an ambitious array of new technologies.

So how do we realise these opportunities?

Five paths to the future

First, develop cost-effective, clean alternatives to gasoline. Clean-burning hydrogen is much discussed as an attractive long-term option. But more readily available is ethanol, a high-octane fuel that can be blended with gasoline to improve performance. More than 4 million cars in the United States today can use gasoline and ethanol interchangeably. Every single car worldwide could easily be made to run on an ethanol blend. We must manufacture automobiles that can operate on either gasoline or ethanol.

But duel-fueled motor vehicles are not enough. We also need to make ethanol and other biofuels cheaper and more abundant. And again, technology is the answer. The same biotech breakthroughs that are creating new wonder drugs can go beyond corn and turn all kinds of crops and plants, even grasses and solid waste into biofuels.

Put biofuels into a hybrid vehicle, mixed with traditional fuels, and you can have an SUV that gets the equivalent of more than 150 miles (240 kilometres) on a single gallon of gasoline – or a Prius that gets well over 300 miles per gallon. That is an example of technology at its best. Consumers get the automobiles and trucks they want, using much less oil, causing much less damage to the environment, while making a significant contribution to bolstering our national security.

Second, modernise the electric power grid. In this digital age, the need for high-quality, reliable electricity makes the United States’ power grid as important as its highway system. Electricity is essential for our homes, hospitals, and businesses, yet the grid is antiquated, fragile, and inefficient, operating mostly on 50-year-old technology. Running today’s digital society through yesterday’s grid is like running the internet through an old telephone switchboard.

We could have a system that fixes itself when the power goes out, that handles power from wind turbines, fuel cells, and solar panels as well as it does power from big power plants. Routine outages and power disturbances cost US businesses about $80 billion every year. And, this same system is shockingly vulnerable to attack.

Third, modernise the US auto industry. 10% of jobs in the United States are dependent, directly or indirectly, on the automobile industry, which today appears to be in freefall. A coalition around tax incentives for energy-efficient automobiles and state-of-the art production facilities could make real progress.

Fourth, modernise the coal industry. For the next 200 years or longer, much of the United States and world economy will continue to be heavily dependent on coal. Again, there are major opportunities to transform its technologies, including new combined cycle power plants with carbon sequestration. The Bush administration has a small programme for this, but it is not nearly big enough. The global ramifications are very significant; in just five years, China has built 100 major coal-fired power plants, and dozens more are planned.

Will those coal-fired power plants use modern technology, or will they follow business as usual? For China and India, “business as usual” means more and more carbon in the atmosphere. With new combined cycle and sequestration technologies – potentially American technologies – the United States can progressively lead the world in changing that pattern.

Fifth, expand renewable energy resources. Much of the world is awakening to the challenge of renewables. Germany, Denmark, and Britain are leading the way in wind power; Japan is taking over most of the solar market; China is working in areas of auto efficiency far beyond anything in the United States.

Climate change, security, and poverty are merging into a new domestic and international political reality. While political consensus is growing, business engagement is getting stronger all of the time. General Electric, for example, has just announced a major new corporate initiative, “ecomagination”. The company plans to double its annual investment in clean energy technology research and development to $1.5 billion by 2010.

The political constituency is coming together. At some point, the United States will reach the tipping-point, and there will be a seismic shift in its approach to climate change. That is the way the US system works: the forces build up to a pressure-point that suddenly causes revolutionary change.

For America, this is the most interesting economic opportunity, and the greatest political opportunity – to lead and contribute to helping to heal our fragile and troubled global environment. We can help to develop access to energy for the poorest people in the world. It is time for us to mobilise and seize this transformational opportunity. It is hidden in plain sight. We must open our eyes. The future of the earth – and its ability to support life – depends very largely on us.

This article appears as part of openDemocracy‘s online debate on the politics of climate change. The debate was developed in partnership with the British Council as part of their ZeroCarbonCity initiative – a two year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change.

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