David Roberts is a staff writer at Grist and contributes frequently to their blog, Gristmill. This is the first of a two-part attempt to present a potential unified agenda for greens. Part II will be published Thursday.
It is up to greens to make sure that in 2007, a year full of possibility on energy and environmental issues, change moves in the direction of long-term sustainability and justice. Powerful forces will be pushing the other way. They—chambers of commerce, dinosaur corporations, think tank and government shills—tend to speak in a unified voice.
The good guys—the side of clean energy and emissions reductions—are a rump coalition of liberal environmentalists, libertarian conservationists, conservative evangelicals, geeked-out entrepreneurs and paranoid defense hawks, among others.
That's a lot of cats to herd, and the green movement-that-isn't usually produces a cacophony. Diagnoses and solutions range wildly in spatial and temporal scale, emphasis, cost and feasibility. Everything from light bulbs to organic food, to flex-fuel cars to a carbon freeze tax—no, make that a cap-and-trade program—clamors for attention.
Before I suggest a positive agenda most elements of the green coalition can agree on (in my dreams, anyway), it's important to understand why circumstances are uniquely aligned for action, and forecast a few of the forces against which greens should consciously countervail.
Circumstances favor progress. Greens confront opportunities in 2007 that haven't come around since the energy crisis of the 1970s. A new consensus is coalescing.
Public awareness is high, thanks to Al Gore and whole cavalcade of events and media coverage this past year. In addition to a few counterintuitive new members of the green coalition (among them God and Wal-Mart), pop culture trendsetters embraced green as the new black. Everybody's talking about it.
Virtually every winning Democratic candidate in the dramatic November elections was vocal about alternative fuels, energy independence, and (to a lesser extent) global warming, issues that have largely been stripped of their effete, elitist connotations. Particularly at the state and local level, Republicans are blazing environmental paths, part of the coast-spanning Schwarzenegger/Pataki Axis of Non-Crazy. Bush and his political appointees represent an increasingly isolated, reactionary anti-green corporatism. Green is emerging as one of the few areas ripe for efficacious bipartisanship.
Business elites have also seen a vision of our fossil-free future and are aggressively preparing for its arrival. Corporate behemoths like Wal-Mart, DuPont, and GE are focusing on efficiency. Venture capital is pouring into the clean energy sector. The mighty giant of American entrepreneurialism awakes.
Nonetheless, certain political and corporate interests hope to stall progress, or at least use it to further entrench and enrich themselves. There will be the obvious polluters and the old battles , but also a new set of politically-connected industries pushing solutions better for their bottom lines than the public interest. Only a united green front can counter their influence and push in more sustainable direction.
Ethanol. The recent hype around ethanol stands primarily to benefit Big Corn: Archer Daniels Midland alone stands to receive about $2 billion of direct or indirect government largesse in 2007. Big Auto's also getting a piece: For every "flex-fuel" car they crank out, American automakers receive a credit against their federal gas mileage requirements. They put those credits toward making more gas guzzlers while the vast majority of flex-fuel car owners don't even live in areas where E85 is available, much less use it.
Add to this the fact that corn ethanol's energy balance is modest in the most optimistic assessments. Not to mention that corn production is environmentally devastating. Not to mention that ramping up ethanol will increase food prices, and there isn't enough arable land in the U.S. , even if we wanted to level all of it for chemical-intensive monocrops, to supply both sustainably.
Different green constituencies will offer varying levels of support to corn ethanol and its much-discussed but rare successor, cellulosic ethanol. But they should all be able to agree that the backing of multiple large corporate lobbies and a network of powerful farm-state legislators is enough for ethanol, and other, less-heralded sustainability options would benefit from their attention.
"Clean" coal. Following closely behind ethanol on the energy hype scale is coal liquefaction at what are commonly referred toIGCC plants, usually accompanied—at least rhetorically—by carbon sequestration. Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle plants burn somewhat cleaner and can more easily separate out the CO2 so that it can be injected underground. This is how coal companies justify their continued existence.
But where are the IGCC plants adjoined by working sequestration operations? Good luck finding them. IGCC technology is substantially more expensive than traditional coal plants. Sequestration, which is highly speculative, adds another 30-60 percent to the cost, along with huge new demands for energy and water. Meaningful commercialization and deployment are likely decades away. Even if that bright day arrives, "clean coal" still involves the environmental devastation of coal mining, the generation of substantial mercury and particulate pollution, and a per-kilowatt energy costs no better than wind and far worse than energy efficiency.
Nuclear power. The threat of climate change has given the nuclear industry its best talking point since "too cheap to meter" went inoperative. A few fear-stricken greens have fled into the nuclear embrace, much to the delight of man-bites-dog loving pundits. But nuclear's problems have gone nowhere. Each nuke plant is fantastically expensive, uninsurable, subsidized out the wazoo, vulnerable to terrorist attack or accident, and constantly generating waste that we still don't know what to do with. Nuclear is a market Frankenstein, kept alive with jolts of taxpayer cash and bully-pulpit support from political, military and business elites.
Note that all these are supply-focused solutions. The same focus is behind the perpetual push to drill and mine more places (offshore, ANWR, Rocky Mountains, Appalachian Mountains). It's behind the implacable opposition to carbon emissions limits. It goes to the very animating spirit of U.S. power elites.
The green agenda threatens all that. The decentralization and democratization of energy production and the development of a more conscious, thoughtful consumer lifestyle will yield an economy powered by less cheap oil and more valuable human labor—along with a foreign policy conducted from a position of security and independence. Justifications for imperial adventures will be harder to come by.
If greens hope to make any progress, they must use this time of immense possibility to join together and push in the same direction.
Tomorrow: What That Might Look Like.