Saturday, June 18, 2011

Greening America

I am happy to quote a few paragraphs from Robert F. Kennedy's Foreword to Van Jones' The Green Collar Economy: How one Solution can Fix our Two Biggest Problems (New York: Harper Collins ebooks: 2008). :

“LAST NOVEMBER, LORD (David) Puttnam debated before Parliament an important bill to tackle global warming. Addressing industry and government warnings that we must proceed slowly to avoid economic ruin, Lord Puttnam recalled that precisely two hundred years ago Parliament heard identical caveats during the debate over abolition of the slave trade. 

At that time slave commerce represented one-fourth of Britain’s gross domestic product (GDP) and provided its primary source of cheap, abundant energy. Vested interests warned that financial apocalypse would succeed its prohibition. That debate lasted roughly a year, and Parliament, in the end, made the moral choice, abolishing the trade outright. 

Instead of collapsing, as slavery’s proponents had predicted, Britain’s economy accelerated. Slavery’s abolition exposed the debilitating inefficiencies associated with zero-cost labor; slavery had been a ball and chain not only for the slaves, but also for the British economy, hobbling productivity and stifling growth. Creativity and productivity surged. Entrepreneurs seeking new sources of energy launched the industrial revolution and inaugurated an era of the greatest wealth production in human history. 

Today, we don’t need to abolish carbon as an energy source in order to see its inefficiencies starkly or understand that the addiction to it is the principal drag on American capitalism. The evidence is before our eyes. The practice of borrowing a billion dollars each day to buy foreign oil has caused the American dollar to implode. More than a trillion dollars in annual subsidies to coal and oil producers has beggared a nation that four decades ago owned half the globe’s wealth. Carbon dependence has eroded our economic power, destroyed our moral authority, diminished our international influence and prestige, endangered our national security, and damaged our health and landscapes. It is subverting everything we value. 

We know that nations that “decarbon” their economies reap immediate rewards. Sweden announced in 2006 the phaseout of all fossil fuels, closed two nuclear reactors, and still dropped greenhouse-gas emissions to five tons per person, compared to the U.S. rate of twenty tons. Thousands of entrepreneurs rushed to develop new ways of generating energy from sun, wind, and tides and from wood chips, agricultural waste, and garbage. Growth rates climbed to upwards of three times those of the United States. The heavily taxed Swedish economy is now the world’s eighth richest by GDP. 

Iceland was 80 percent dependent on imported coal and oil in the 1970s, its economy among the poorest in Europe. Today, Iceland is 100 percent energy-independent, with 90 percent of the nation’s homes heated by geothermal and its remaining electrical needs met by hydro. The International Monetary Fund now ranks Iceland the fourth most affluent nation on Earth. Geothermal and hydro produce so much cheap power that Iceland has become one of the world’s top energy exporters. (Iceland exports its surplus energy in the form of smelted aluminum.) The country, which previously had to beg for corporate investment, now has companies lined up to relocate there to take advantage of its low-cost clean energy. 

Brazil, which decarboned its energy over the past decade, is now experiencing the most sustained economic boom in its history. Costa Rica, which is phasing out carbon, is Central America’s wealthiest economy. 

The United States has far greater domestic energy resources than Iceland or Sweden. We sit atop the second-largest fund of geothermal resources in the world. The American Midwest is the Saudi Arabia of wind; indeed, North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas alone produce enough harnessable wind to meet all of the nation’s electricity demand. As for solar, according to a study in Scientific American, photovoltaic and solar-thermal installations across just 19 percent of the most barren desert land in the Southwest could supply nearly all of our nation’s electricity needs without any rooftop installation, even assuming every American owned a plug-in hybrid car.