Politics

Published on September 29th, 2008 | by Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

4

Give Me Your Vote, and I’ll Give You Clean, Abundant Energy…


wind turbine against a background of dark cloudsSound familiar?  Unless you’ve had your head stuck in the sand for the past couple of months, you’ve heard variations on this statement from both Barack Obama and John McCain… countless times. High gas and utility prices have collided with a stagnant economy,  and energy issues (and the environmental issues accompanying them) have come to the front and center of the ’08 election cycle.

My colleagues at Red, Green and Blue have done a thorough job of covering the policy proposals of the presidential candidates. But the devil’s in the details, and NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday held a fascinating discussion last week on the issues that aren’t being covered in the political rhetoric: namely, the economic and technological challenges that both government and the private sector will have to address to get us to a clean energy future. Host Ira Flatow, New York University professor emeritus of physics Martin Hoffert, and Wallace S. Wilson Fellow in energy studies and associate director of the energy program at Rice University Amy Myers Jaffe took a look at the bigger picture of our energy challenges, and the kinds of leadership a new presidential administration will have to exert in order to facilitate rapid, even revolutionary, changes in how we power ourselves.

Among the questions raised during the discussion:

Who’ll take the lead: the private sector or government? While Hoffert and Jaffe held different opinions on whether business or government would provide the main stimulus for clean energy development, both agreed that major government action was necessary, and that current levels of funding for research were a small fraction of what’s necessary.

How long will it take? A ten-year time frame has taken hold of this debate, stemming in part from former Vice President Al Gore’s challenge issued in July. Rather than focusing on that particular time line, though, Hoffert and Jaffe offered ideas for making the sense of urgency implied in that framework a reality. Though Jaffe noted specifically that simplistic statements like “we can be completely powered by solar energy in a decade” ignore the technological and economic realities we face, both encouraged the political establishment to take concrete steps based on defined aggressive goals.  Ideas included:

  • A presidential “energy brain trust,” similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s War Production Board.
  • Empowering the Secretary of Energy with foreign relations responsibilities: Hoffert noted that our energy security, and the environmental challenges which accompany our present course, are global in nature, and require a Secretary of Energy to look beyond the domestic picture.
  • A national summit of the nation’s top scientists on energy technology, with the specific goal of breaking down narrow disciplinary boundaries; rather, put all of the county’s best minds to work, together, on a common goal of revolutionary change in our energy use and infrastructure.
  • A focused discussion on the merits and drawbacks of centralized and distributed energy grids.

What will it cost? Hoffert suggested that Senator Obama’s pledge of $150 billion dollar over ten years was a good start, and both experts noted that infrastructure upgrades were a critical (and expensive) first step necessary to harness the full potential of cleaner energy sources.  Storage technologies are also key to taking full advantage of our ample renewable resources, and funds would need to be earmarked for this important research and development.

The current financial crisis, however, throws a monkey wrench into these developments: with, at minimum, $250 billion dollars going to bail out financial institutions, clean energy development will be fighting for leftovers with other important priorities. Jaffe particularly noted the amount of venture capital and other investment funds moving towards clean technology, though, and believes this is a trend that won’t be stopped by the current mess. The bailout could even help keep this movement of capital flowing at a healthy pace.

Neither candidate has offered, thus far, this level of detail in his plans to address energy and environmental concerns.  Both have made the connection between energy sources, foreign policy and national security, but the “hows” still remain a mystery. As we move towards election day, these kinds of issues could elevate the discussion beyond the usual “tit for tat” political discourse into a robust discussion of the centrality of energy to current challenges facing the United States.

This discussion won’t occur unless one, or both, of the candidates take this conversation out of the realm of typical political discourse, and start exerting genuine leadership. The discussion must move beyond drilling or not drilling, one technology vs. others, and which approach will play best in certain swing states. Both candidates need to trust the American public enough to bring up the challenges raised by moving towards more sustainable methods of energy production and use, and exercise enough creativity to make the connection between national sustainable development, and day-to-day kitchen table concerns. The arguments are there… who’ll make them?

Would you like to help us hold both candidates’ feet a bit closer to the fire on energy and environmental concerns?  Join Red, Green and Blue and ReframeIt’s scavenger hunt for statements, positions and votes offered by both candidates that aren’t making it into the mainstream media coverage of the campaign. Help us dig up the details that will fill in the blanks on Senator Obama and Senator McCain’s energy and environmental policy prescriptions.

Image credit: Ryan McD at Flickr under a Creative Commons license



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About the Author

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg is the founder and editor of sustainablog. You can keep up with all of his writing at Facebook, and at



  • http://www.GreenJoyment.com GreenJoyment

    That scavenger hunt is an absolutely BRILLIANT idea! Though I think it might also be better for individuals to spend time working on putting their brains to work on creating actual solutions, rather than spending time hunting down what someone may have said (or not said). There are so many skills and tools for learning how to make energy efficiency a reality… If more average people (A.K.A. non-scientists) were putting their brains to work on it, I think we’d come up with solutions quicker.

  • http://sustainablog.org Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    @GreenJoyment — I agree that “crowdsourcing” solutions would be an overall better use of time… as we’re in the thick of the political season, though, and we’re not getting a whole lot of in-depth coverage of the candidates’ records on these issues, it seemed relevant… for now. We’ll keep your concept in mind, though…

  • http://sustainablog.org Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    And, btw, feel free to spread the word…;-)

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    I will allow you both hands to name any scientific breakthroughs that were a direct result of government oversight. You will not need all ten fingers; maybe just 3, or 2, or even…less. Certainly, NASA, USPS, NOAA, and some universities have done quite well with the grant monies they have received; however, they are not direct reports to the government. So, be specific in naming a direct link between the breakthrough and the beltway.

    Next, I would like to explain and/or question the listed bullet points:

    • “A presidential “energy brain trust,” similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s War Production Board.”

    Of course, turn it all over to the central government because it is made up of individuals smarter and more motivated than the average serf. Does anyone remember by which branch of government the Wright brothers, Alexander Bell, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jonas Salk, Albert Einstein, Guglielmo Marconi, etc. were employed?

    • “Empowering the Secretary of Energy with foreign relations responsibilities: Hoffert noted that our energy security, and the environmental challenges which accompany our present course, are global in nature, and require a Secretary of Energy to look beyond the domestic picture.”

    Naturally, global socialization is the only answer. The United States is incapable of achieving the necessary results on its own. Never mind that nearly every invention worth mentioning originated in the US.

    • “A national summit of the nation’s top scientists on energy technology, with the specific goal of breaking down narrow disciplinary boundaries; rather, put all of the county’s best minds to work, together, on a common goal of revolutionary change in our energy use and infrastructure.”

    Repeat reply to #1, and ask why limit the summit to this nation’s top scientists in light of #2′s global implications? Also ask if Dr. Heidi Cullen will have oversight to exclude any scientists who question the legitimacy of AGW; or as it is now called, “climate change”?

    • “A focused discussion on the merits and drawbacks of centralized and distributed energy grids.”

    This question was answered about a hundred years ago when Westinghouse’s alternating current electric energy distribution grid wiped Edison’s direct current electric energy centralized utilities off the map. DC is not without its merits, but historically transmitting it over great distances has been problematic. Too bad they destroyed Tesla’s energy transmitting antennas because they could not figure out how to meter the end user and thought the Nazi’s had interest in the technology.

    As far as putting the burden of making such changes on the Chief Executive, the duties fall outside those enumerated by The Constitution of the United States. Of course, that does not stop our elected officials from participating in the federalization of the “free market” vis-à-vis the bailout being proposed to solve the current government induced “financial crisis” mentioned in Jeff’s post. Having the government mandate that adjustable rate mortgage loans be made to people with poor credit and little ability to pay such a debt makes perfect sense, right? Naturally, when the chickens of such a policy “come home to roost”, it’s the taxpaying few who are asked to cover the costs.

    In light of another government sponsored boondoggle, shouldn’t the question be, “Do we want to continue putting our trust in candidates that only make empty promises?” Oh wait, those have been our only two choices since 1988. I guess we do.

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