Speaking in Las Vegas on Monday, former President Bill Clinton challenged Americans to change how the energy/climate debate has been framed by extremists on the right.
The debate so far has been dominated by a need to prove that:
1) Global warming is real.
2) Global warming is caused by human activity.
3) Global warming is bad.
4) Measures to stop global warming won’t destroy our economy and way of life.
In other words, supporters of the energy status quo and their loony mercenary mobs have rational people playing defense at every turn. That framework is reason #1 why the wimpy Waxman-Markey bill barely squeaked by in the House.
In a single phrase, uttered six minutes into his remarks and repeated throughout his one-hour address, Clinton supplied the winning frame for progress on a host of interconnected issues, including global warming, a tanking economy (particularly noticeable in a massive loss of jobs), and a series of disastrous oil wars.
Clinton’s new frame was: "We are still piddling with this." And by this he clearly meant all of these interconnected issues of jobs, energy, the environment.
Now, I don’t expect to see signs going up across the nation proclaiming, "No more piddling!" But it’s just the kind of phrasing that connects with a huge number of "ordinary" Americans.
Clinton, whose mojo was always about connecting heart and head (or sense and sensibility), went on to discuss in the pure wonk language of numbers, the challenges facing us and the benefits of specific actions. But he always tagged up with a variation of the "piddling" theme.
Clinton said we need to focus policy – and money – on the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency. Retrofitting older building to make them energy efficient, for example, would provide the most bang for the buck, in terms of lowering GHG emissions and in job growth. Constructing a new coal-fired power plant generates 870 jobs for every $1 billion invested, said Clinton. The same money used to make existing buildings energy efficient would create 6,000 jobs.
A report issued on Monday by the Center for American Progress (a host of the summit), underscored Clinton’s message. According to the study, 40 percent of GHG emissions comes from energy used in building. "Deep building retrofits can cut energy use by 20 to 40 percent with proven techniques and off-the-shelf technologies," the report continued. "Best of all, they can pay for themselves from the energy they save."
The report recommends a $500 billion public-private investment to retrofit forty percent of our existing building stock by the year 2020. Such a program would, according to the study, employ over a half million workers and save consumers $32 billion to $64 billion annually in reduced energy costs.
For at least part of that money, Clinton advocated creating a program along the lines of the Small Business Administration. Banks, which Clinton said are sitting on $900 billion that could be available for loans, should be encouraged to make that money available for energy efficiency by government backing of the loans.
"You’ve got to get the banks involved," he said, "if you’re going to stop piddling around."
Sec. of Energy Steven Chu
In a small press conference earlier in the day, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu had called energy efficiency "the fruit on the ground" ready to be picked up, even more accessible than "low-hanging" fruit.
The Green Bank
Clinton’s idea is in addition to a so-called Green Bank which was mentioned throughout the day as another avenue routing funding for a new energy economy. One plan for a Green Bank claims that at a funding level of $50 billion, it could:
· Generate enough clean electricity to power 22.9 million cars a year.
· Decrease gasoline consumption by 12.6 billion gallons a year.
· Decrease oil consumption by 642 million barrels a year.
Former oilman turned wind baron turned natural gas proponent T. Boone Pickens, offered another idea:
Mandate that all diesel fleet vehicles including 18-wheel trucks be run on natural gas. Pickens pointed out that natural gas is far less polluting than diesel fuel and that it could provide a bridge to an all clean electric transportation society. Former Vice President Al Gore agreed with Pickens that electric battery technology is not yet ready to replace diesel engines and supported the idea of switching to natural gas.
Such a costly conversion program may be unnecessary, however, even in the short run, after last week’s announcement that the DOE was releasing $2.4 billion to develop electric cars (EVs) and an EV charging infrastructure. $1.5 billion targets improvements in battery technology.
Another Clinton idea is to take the best part of the Cash for Clunkers program and adapt it for EVs. Providing buyers of new EVs with a $10,000 incentive, could, he said, put more clean cars on the road and drive the industry which is still gearing up, to get more efficient, better-designed EVs to market sooner.
The day-long event produced many other ideas for moving to a clean energy economy, creating jobs and making the US the world leader in cutting GHG emissions.
Funding community colleges to train workers (from all backgrounds) in new technology jobs.
Doing more to create a national smart grid that can efficiently handle power generated from new sources.
Sensible deregulation to allow energy efficient and environmentally sound project to scale up more quickly.
Open public land in the Southwest to development of large scale solar power facilities.
I cringed when I heard that last goal. Not because I disagree with its premise. I’m a proponent of solar power, including the large-scale form known as Concentrating Solar Power (CSP). It was the language used at the summit that had me thinking, "here we go again."
One speaker used the phrase "unlimited potential" to describe the desert’s use for electric power generation. In discussions about natural resources, "unlimited" has typically meant only that the speaker refuses to recognize limits and abide by them until what was once unlimited is destroyed. Then it’s time to move on to the next new thing with "unlimited potential."
John Podesta, Center for American Progress (Photo by OGD)
After a final press conference, I told John Podesta, head of the Center for American Progress, about my concerns and he did his best to reassure me that "they all" understood the environmental values of the Southwestern deserts. "Look," he said, "in the Clinton administration [where Podesta was Chief of Staff] we preserved more desert lands than any previous administration. We can do CSP in the desert in a thoughtful, environmental way."
The day ended in the late afternoon on an upbeat note. I overheard one woman leaving the area say to her companion, "I learned so much; I just don’t want to forget it!"
That enthusiasm is important. A large part of the summit was designed to get momentum rolling for passage of a Senate clean energy bill that does not "just piddle around." That actually improves the House bill.
The only way that can happen is if proponents seize the Clinton frame and get the questions back on track. If the national discussion (or shouting match in recent days) remains fixed on defending the extent and culpability of global warming, we all lose. What we need now, coming out of the summit, is a nation asking its elected officials "When, in God’s name, are you going to stop piddling around on issues that decide whether or not I have a job, about my ability to provide for my family, my kids’ future, our national security, and a changing climate that could devastate large regions of America, and the world?"
And the answer better be: “Now.”
L-to-R, T. Boone Pickes, Senator Harry Reid, John Podesta (OGD)
One of the most striking features of yesterday's clean energy summit was the successful combination of two seemingly opposing worlds. There were lengthy exchanges about the nittiest and grittiest details of energy policy (new standards to prevent air leakage in ductwork, for example).
It should have been boring. It wasn't.
The audience was intrigued and engaged and even, at times, euphoric. The summit was like an old timey tent revival meeting -- but for clean energy wonks. True, the panelists were wonks. The audience, however, seemed pretty normal (by Las Vegas standards, of course). The exchanges became so technically detailed yet fervent at points that I thought some panel members had begun speaking in tongues.
Why is this important? Because progressives have such a bodaciously miserable record in this regard.
Major policy shifts live or die based largely on the passions of the day. And a major policy shift is definitely what's called for when you are faced with a rapidly heating planet, a crumbling energy infrastructure and an economy that sucks like a Hoover (in either sense of the name).
Republican leaders and the fossil fool industries understand this all too well. They spend millions to gin up the fear factor on behalf of the status quo. They're playing with fire and they know it. But they don't care.
The progressive challenge is to stir passions for positive change without resorting to lies, demagoguery or forgery. The National Clean Energy Summit may have been an historic advance in that mission.
The task now is to spread those ideas—and those passions—to a much larger audience.
Slot Machine, hotel lobby, 2009
One favorite remark from the summit provoked lots of laughs from the audience (me included). But it was also one of the most open, honest and significant unscripted observations made at the gathering.
During a panel discussion, the always quotable T. Boone Pickens mentioned an exchange he had with a foreign pooh-bah. "What does the rest of the world think about our energy dependence on foreign oil?" (That's the gist of the question.) The man demurred, but Boone pressed him. Finally, the man said, "we think you look stupid."
Which begs the question: Are Americans stupid?
I don't think so, and here's why. Years ago I was a graduate student at University of Arizona in American Indian Studies, studying with, among others, the late, great Vine Deloria. The topic one days was language and how it both shapes and reflects our world. The prof (I think it was Vine, but it could have been someone else) gave a powerful example.
"In [some Native American language], there's no way to say an individual person is stupid. You can't say they're smart, either. Or brave or a coward," he said. "You can say a rock is hard or a very tall tree is noble." He explained the difference: Rocks and trees aren't capable of change. They are what they are. Humans have the potential to change.
You can say a person is acting stupidly or bravely in that language, but embedded in the syntax is the belief that a person can change her or his behavior. People aren't rocks or trees.
My point being that Americans are not stupid. Not collectively or individually. We sure as hell are acting stupidly, however. Change is possible, but that doesn't mean it's inevitable.
We can act to change course. On the other hand, we can continue acting stupidly and pumping out CO2 as if there are no consequences to our actions, as if the piper will never demand payment. We can do that until we no longer have the capacity for change. Because by cooking our planet and destroying the ecosystems we are part of and depend on, we will become as dead as rocks.
Next up in our series on clever ways to reuse or use up household items: pantyhose. I'll admit it's been a hot minute since I donned this frustratingly delicate garment, but then again Mother Jones HQ isn't exactly a formal business attire kind of place. For those of you in offices where jeans and a sweatshirt won't cut it, I give you, courtesy of AltUse.com, five things to do with old pantyhose:
1. Doggie toy: Braid several pairs of hose together to create a thick, woven, nylon rope that is strong, yet very soft on a dogs gums and teeth. They love to play tug of war and fetch with it. Also it's lightweight and can't damage anything.
2. Grow melons: Use pantyhose in the garden to fashion protective sleeves to keep the melons suspended above the ground and away from damp soil where they may rot.
3. Wax skis: After hot waxing and scraping ski bases, rub the bases with pantyhose to create friction for a smooth and glossy finish.
4. Lost things finder: Lost something under the couch? Place pantyhose over the end of your vacuum. The item will be not be sucked past the end of the nozzle covered by the pantyhose.
Take a washed pair of used or new pantyhose and place the onions into the feet. Tie a knot in the pantyhose above each whole onion. Repeat this process until both legs are full or you have inserted all the onions. Hang the pantyhose in a cool, dry, and dark place, such as a pantry, closet, or cellar.
Tuesday environment, science, and health stories from our site and beyond:
Global warning on the back burner: Bjorn Lomborg has never denied global warming, he just thinks it's not that big a deal.
Backpedaling on drug pricing: Instead of openly agreeing to promise no control over pharmaceutical pricing, the White House now says that it’s all a big misunderstanding and the pricing question was not discussed. Oh, come on.
Here's news of an avian flu strain that makes you more susceptible to Parkinson’s, maybe Alzheimer’s, later on. The work is published in an upcoming PNAS and reports how mice surviving infection with an H5N1 flu strain are more likely than uninfected mice to develop brain changes associated with neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
The researchers note that around age 40 people begin losing brain cells. Most people die before they lose enough to get Parkinson’s. But now it appears the H5N1 avian influenza infection changes the curve, making the brain more sensitive to another hit, possibly from another infection, from a drug, or from an environmental toxin.
Flu is primarily a respiratory disease but indirect evidence dating back to 1385 links it to neurological problems, including the brain inflammation known as encephalitis. Some survivors of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic went on to develop Parkinson’s symptoms.
The study marks the first time scientists have naturally triggered a Parkinson’s-like protein build-up—something apparently not that hard to do with the H5N1 virus.
Hands down the best and most dynamic 10-minute explanation of population issues I've seen. From Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. Thanks to Gapminder.
10:10 Just about to start. You can follow tweets at thephoenixsun.
10:15: Gore, Chu, et al. take the stage. John Podesta (CAP) makes opening marks. "Clean energy infrastructure works best when it works together." EVs, solar, got to do everything at the same time. Mentions a green bank to put money into this effort.
10:25: Harry Reid: These problems didn't happen overnight and won't be solved quickly. But time to make a start. Schwartenegger won't be attending, mother-in-law Eunice Kennedy Shriver verry ill.
Introduces Al Gore.
OK, that didn't quite work out technically as planned.
I had thought my tweets would also show up here, but apparently not. Sorry about that.
No one has ever accused the military of being a bunch of treehuggers—but that doesn't mean they're blind to the military and strategic implications of global warming.
"We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today," said retired General Anthony Zinni in a New York Times article yesterday, "...or we will pay the price later in human terms."
The article by NYT writer John Broder is particularly well-timed.
Tomorrow, former Commander-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, will address a "National Clean Energy Summit" in Las Vegas. While the theme of this year's summit (the first was held last year) focuses on jobs, the Times article dovetails perfectly with the larger context of the gathering: the dawning reality that no area of human activity will be untouched by a changing climate. From jobs to wars, the facts are the same.
Studies by military and intelligence analysts warn of "profound strategic challenges" to the US due to the affects of climate change, reports Broder. The climate-induced crises include famine, water wars, mass migration, epidemics and massive storms.
While the military is not an environmental organization -- think Agent Orange or nuclear testing in the Pacific -- their view is and always has been utilitarian and mission-driven. Sometimes, environmental and military needs coincide. That's the case now with global warming -- just as it was in 1817 with a different issue.
You needed wood to build and maintain a fleet in the 19th Century and so the Secretary of the Navy reserved large swaths of hardwood forests on the east coast. Deforestation was halted (for a time) for national security reasons.
Maybe someone should print a bumper sticker (if one doesn't already exist): Support the troops. Fight global warming.
Check back here tomorrow when I'll be live blogging the summit.
The first session begins at 10 AM (1 PM on the east coast) with opening remarks by Al Gore, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Podesta (the Center for American Progress is a host of the event) and other heavy-hitters. Should be interesting. You can check out the agenda yourself, here.
Osha Gray Davidson edits The Phoenix Sun and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here.