Job opening: Leader on energy and environment issues (courage required)
August 17, 2012
ASPEN – The related issues of energy and the environment were pretty sexy Thursday afternoon. A talk by Amory Lovins, founder and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Old Snowmass, and journalist Thomas Friedman drew a full and fully engaged house to the Aspen District Theatre. Friedman pointed out the glamorous achievements – an Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth” and a Nobel Peace Prize – that Al Gore has rung up for putting those difficult issues on the table.
But Friedman, while praising Gore, noted that he has more admiration for a lesser-known champion of the energy/environment cause: the anonymous guy who invented a soda-pop-dispensing machine that uses 25 to 50 percent less energy than earlier models.
“We need a systems approach,” Friedman said, in an event co-presented by the Aspen Business Luncheon and Aspen Renewable Energy Day. “We need a way to get ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”
But Friedman and Lovins also made it clear that the world – and especially the U.S. – needs to think big in tackling the problems of climate change, the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere and relying on adversary nations to supply America with oil. Solving these issues shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of individuals and small companies.
“I like hobbies. I made model airplanes as a kid. But fixing our energy problems shouldn’t be taken on as a hobby,” Friedman said.
Instead it is the bigger players – the U.S. military, President Obama – who need to lead the way. Lovins said that the military, the biggest purchaser of both oil and renewable energy, has at times been innovative in its practices but hasn’t quite become an outright model.
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“If the military got serious about renewables, it could set the leadership path for civilians,” he said.
But Lovins – whose book “Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era” was published last year – noted that the military has a perverse disincentive to developing renewable-energy sources. A decreased reliance on foreign oil means less of a need for war in places like Iraq – and a reduced role for the military.
“They never liked that idea,” Lovins said.
Even more problematic has been President Obama. Friedman read to the audience a quote from Obama printed on the cover of the AREDay program: “The federal government can and should lead by example when it comes to creating innovative ways to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, conserve water, reduce waste and use environmentally responsible products and technologies.” Friedman noted the date of the quote – October 2009 – and said, “I would suggest that’s the last time he uttered that paragraph.”
Friedman noted that while Obama has been noticeably quiet on the environment and energy in the past several years, his administration actually has much to tout. Under Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, no coal-burning plants have been built in the U.S. Late last year, the administration proposed a detailed rule that would require doubling the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks by 2025.
“I wish he’d put it in an ad and tell people he did it. If he did nothing else, that is a great achievement for his four years,” Friedman said.
But Friedman noted that the administration has cut the term “climate change” from its vocabulary, a measure of how reluctant Obama is to wade into difficult and controversial waters.
“We actually can’t talk about the bigger forces. We can only talk about pollution,” he said, noting that adopting the issue of being “green” has taken on a negative tone. “It’s anti-patriotic, sissy. Slightly ‘French.'”
While the Democratic Party hasn’t displayed the courage of its convictions, the Republicans have “the wrong convictions,” Friedman said.
“It’s no longer a conservative party,” he said. “It’s a radical party. We don’t need debates. What we need are deals. And we won’t get deals with a party that is a radical party.”
Friedman said Obama’s silence on energy and the environment is part of the president’s bigger habit of reticence on major issues. He said the funniest article in recent times was a New Yorker piece about Obama’s agenda for a possible second term. The article was largely theoretical, with third parties speculating what a second Obama term would consist of. Why, Friedman wondered, wasn’t Obama trumpeting those goals himself?
“That’s not leadership. Right now, everything is off the table. Our future is off the table. What you end up with are sub-optimal compromises with no due diligence. When’s the last time one of our leaders surprised us?” Friedman said, noting that he has called for a third-party candidate to enter the 2012 presidential race as the best way to create a discussion about energy and the environment as well as gun control and the deficit, all “at the true scale of the problem.”
Maybe a better place to look for inspiration and ideas is to other countries. Lovins had no trouble finding extreme and successful efforts outside the U.S. China has doubled its wind-power production for five years straight, while the U.S has decreased its production. China also has raised its target for creating photovoltaic energy drastically. Tata, a massive Indian corporation, has said it will build no more coal-power plants. Japan and Portugal are moving toward renewable energy at frantic paces.
Germany might be the most impressive example of all. It replaced three-fifths of its nuclear output in a year with renewables while also becoming more efficient, reducing its carbon output and reducing energy costs. The country, according to Lovins, also is installing solar-power systems at half what it costs the U.S., thanks to the scale of the effort.
“That’s the speed at which the energy revolution is spreading like fire around the world,” Lovins said.
The U.S., as the largest per-capita user of energy, could have an enormous impact on that revolution. And Friedman said the best way to do that is not by joining international conventions and implementing rules.
“I believe one good example is worth a thousand theories,” he said. “More will follow the U.S. example than regulations.”