“Money Talks on Climate Change”

Money Talks on Climate Change,” The Guardian, 18 July 2008.

Al Gore’s call for carbon-free electricity talks up a different kind of green.

On Thursday in Washington, former vice-president Al Gore asked the American people to join him in an ambitious plan to source 100% of American electricity from “clean and truly renewable” sources in 10 years. It was fitting that the speech, held in a hall named for the Daughters of the American Revolution, took place at a safe remove from the Capitol. In one chamber, an embattled, unpopular Congress debated fixes to the newly-distraught American economy. In another, stewards of America’s energy action movement continued a trend in which greens rally around pocketbook woes facing ordinary Americans. It’s this unconventional environmental frame, in this hard-hit financial climate, that has the best chance of giving Gore his wish in 10 years’ time.

In the address, sponsored by the newly-formed non-profit Alliance for Climate Protection, Gore ticked off the inconvenient litany of environmental horrors facing the planet, from droughts to wildfires to freakish storm patterns. He continually came back to the same bogeyman: carbon based fuels. Their villainy, however, is not purely ozone related. In his call to action, Gore shifted the emphasis, making a pitch to the audience that focused less on tree-hugging than on matters of economic and national security.

The energy crisis facing America, Gore chided, is catholic. “We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet,” he said. “Every bit of that has got to change.” The major impediment to such change, he continued, is familiar factions fighting for “old solutions to each crisis separately”.

This argument, which is gaining currency in environmental circles, suggests that a “green economy” that encourages a diverse portfolio of energy sources cuts through the old political order and provides a way to cushion the blow of rising energy costs and the market impact of any eventual cap-and-trade legislation. This “post-carbon economy”, as congressman Jay Inslee of Washington put it to me afterward, is latent and vital – and is entirely a matter of dollars and cents.

Whereas environmentalists have sometimes seemed long on righteousness and short on numbers, Gore backed his case for renewable electricity with logical case studies. Electricity production is responsible for one-third of US global warming emissions. He explained the math of clean alternatives like solar and wind energy in easy terms: 40 minutes of sun on the surface of the planet could power one year of electricity in the US; one day of plains-state wind could do the same. And – quite the inverse of coal or oil-based power – as the demand for these technologies increases, their price drops.

While Gore is certainly part of the cap-and-trade brigade, tellingly, the focus of his speech was on neither regulation nor conservation, but on investment. This says much, perhaps, about the ACP’s bipartisan “We Campaign”, which has been running ads featuring Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson, Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich. An appeal for investment in clean technology appeals to both market-savvy conservatives and save-the-whales liberals. Ultimately, the kind of investments called for by Gore and other groups, like the interdisciplinary Apollo Alliance – named for the historic mission set by president John Kennedy in 1960 – will stop the haemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs; repair America’s leaking, creaky infrastructure; and place the US on a more independent course while taking new energy technologies to scale.

Of course, political hurdles are real and galling – the lack of congressional will to renew subsidies for young industries like wind and solar are a twig in the craw of climate enthusiasts. But as the price of oil soars ever higher and the likelihood of a price on carbon sinks in, markets are responding, and billions of dollars are flowing into research and development for renewables – even at the largest oil companies.

From attendees Bob Barr, libertarian candidate for president, to Will.i.am, court composer for the Democratic party, the oohs and aaahs in Constitution Hall underscored the radically new line of conversation Gore has opened. He was correct in stating that “the common thread is deeply ironic in its simplicity.” Because frankly, money talks, and a phased retreat from a grey economy could be a winning argument with Americans paying closer attention to their own bottom lines.

Dayo Olopade

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