Al Gore gave an incredibly important speech last week, as I’m sure you’ve heard. The challenge is for the US to dramatically reduce our demand, increase our efficiency, and retool our infrastructure in 10 years to produce all of our electricity with no carbon emissions. Echoing JFK’s man-on-the-moon in a decade vision, the challenge sets an ambitious, but achievable goal.
Of course, not everybody thinks so. The responses have been predictable:
1) 1) Gore is a gas-bag (or something to that effect)
2) 2) It’s impossible
3) 3) It will cripple the economy
4) 4) It’s political posturing
5) 5) It’s out of touch with the rest of the world
6) 6) He didn’t tell us exactly how to do it
Of those, I’d say the only one that has any real merit might be #1, and that’s a matter of opinion. The rest reflect only the assumptions we make about what’s possible, about what we want out of life, about why we’re here, and about what are our moral responsibilities to ourselves, other people in our country and around the world, other species, and future generations. The approach is exactly the kind we need. It recognizes the urgency of the problem, and the scale and scope of what’s needed. It moves us past rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
(As an aside, the speech has also brought up criticism that people have been saying “we only have 10 years to deal with this” for over 10 years – I think that’s true, and there’s no doubt we’re locked into real, and painful climate change already. In that respect we’ve already failed. The emissions we are putting out today, will continue to have an effect for the coming 100+ years, changing the climate in ways we cannot predict and will have difficulty adapting to. Now it’s a question of how much and to what degree. So it’s not a “10 years or else” call, we’re already in “or else” now it’s how much “or else” and to set a hard, but achievable stretch goal like this, will hopefully help to wake us up and snap us into action).
The challenge takes a backcasting approach, which is the only way we’ll make the kinds of shifts needed to change our trajectory.
It has the potential to tap into our American drive to be leaders and help others. Something we haven’t shown in quite a while, particularly in the climate negotiations. For a quick eye-opener as to the sorts of reactions our policy is causing, check out this article from the Indian publication Down to Earth. An excerpt:
“In all this, the US has fast-tracked its own climate attack. It had already scored a coup, bringing all major emitters—China and India included—into one group, so blurring, indeed removing, the difference between rich countries legally required to take action and others. It cajoled countries like India by offering amnesty: join my club and I will protect you from taking commitments. Now, with the domestic mood changing, the US has changed tack. Instead of no commitments, it wants China and India to take on voluntary targets—‘aspirational’ in its language. The two are brought in, and the US ends up protecting itself, for the targets for action are set not for the interim (2020), but for 2050. Long enough for it to agree to do nothing, increase its emissions and grow. Climate-murder. But who cares?”
Gore's challenge alone, of course won’t make it happen. But it’s another important piece of a growing puzzle of hopeful developments. More and more sectors are getting started in measuring and planning their reductions, and taking early actions around green building, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment has nearly 560 schools, representing over 4.6 million students developing plans to go climate neutral. The US Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement has up over 840 mayors signed on to meet Kyoto targets. The US Climate Action Partnership between big businesses and big greens is calling for federal action. The We Campaign is getting the word out. 1Sky is focusing on federal action. Green for All is driving the creation of a green economy, and is not going to allow politicians to spin internalizing the cost of carbon as a burden on the poor. As Van Jones said on a conference call yesterday “they don’t speak for us – we speak for ourselves.” And 350.org is rallying people from around the world to demand action to get our atmospheric concentrations of CO2 back down to 350ppm. Even oil man T. Boone Pickens has his ambitious Picken’s Plan to bring huge amounts of wind power from the middle of the country to the coasts (in my view, a case of the means justifying the end).
And there are real solutions out there. My business partner has been deep into research on the potential for developing long-range transmission on a DC grid, a big players from business and government here in the US are starting to take these concepts seriously. Lester Brown just released a great piece on the return to thermal solar plants that can generate the MWs needed to make-up a meaningful piece of our energy mix, while addressing some of the solar-storage concerns (i.e. using solar electricity at night). On the demand side, it’s so much about design. It doesn’t need to cost more – we can build better buildings with lower capital costs and dramatically lower operating costs through smart, holistic integrated design. RMI has a host of compelling case studies, laid-out in a very digestible fashion that shows it’s possible. And don’t forget to put the two together – with dramatically lower demand, ramping up renewable to replace fossil fuels starts to look a lot easier, and the concept of no new coal, decommissioning existing coal, and not having to touch the nuclear waste issue, becomes feasible. So the solutions are out there. And we can get there in such a way that we create domestic jobs, revive local communities, and create the kind of sustainable economic development – the growth of value, not stuff – that we need. What’s been missing, but what we’re starting to see more and more is the vision and political will needed to really get it going. We need to get rid of the perverse subsidies for fossil fuels, and start to account for their true costs. We need to put that price on carbon.
Anyway, watch the speech if you haven’t already. And get behind this idea and all the others that will help us realize this goal and our vision for a sustainable, restorative society. Stay going.