David Rothkopf

Where do we go from here on climate and energy?

Maybe the answer is staring us in the face. China seems to "get it" on climate change and embracing a new energy paradigm. We don’t. Why do they have a sense of urgency while we dither? What useful lesson can we learn from the fact that as America fumbled the ball on energy and climate ...

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

Maybe the answer is staring us in the face.

China seems to "get it" on climate change and embracing a new energy paradigm. We don’t. Why do they have a sense of urgency while we dither? What useful lesson can we learn from the fact that as America fumbled the ball on energy and climate legislation, China announced its plans to begin carbon trading?

Is it because the Chinese love the environment more than we do? Has "Green China" supplanted "Red China?" 

No, they are spending hundreds of billions more and working hard to advance everything from new technologies to the establishing of a national carbon trading mechanism not because of some national sense of charity or planetary good will. They are doing it because it makes economic sense. They are as hard-nosed and unsentimental as any people on the planet — especially the bureaucrats atop the Chinese government. And the only reason they would invest in green energy technologies is because they think that ultimately it will make their country more secure and prosperous.

They believe efficiency is worth the investment because it will make energy cheaper. They will invest in solar and wind because they have solar and wind resources. They will invest in electric cars because they mean importing less oil, spending less hard currency… and spending less on pollution related health care costs.

They actually believe that "smart grids" are smarter — in the most self-interested sense of the word. Smarter for them, for their economy, for their people, for the future. Do they also see leadership in these areas as important to their prospects as manufacturers and exporters of the technologies that will be in demand in the 21st Century? Of course. That too is smart, economics-driven green policy.

We need to think Chinese. We need to be self-interested. We need to recognize that neither the desire to combat climate change nor government activism is going to be as central to changing the global energy paradigm as are the desires to reduce energy costs, ensure energy supplies and profit from new technology sales.

With that in mind, we need to study what government programs can make a difference in accelerating how those motives will work… and which such programs will make the most effort in the near-term when it is needed the most. The focus there can’t exclusively or even primarily be on transformational technologies which will take decades to develop, test and deploy — though we’ll clearly need to keep those going too. It will have to be more than ever on efficiency. We can meet our goals for emissions reductions over the next decade or two by promoting the self-interest of every consumer of energy in the world, by helping them get more for less. More miles per gallon. More hours of Internet time or air conditioning for fewer watts of energy.

Self-interest and the laws of economics will drive the efficiency revolution. But, smart government policies can accelerate it and amplify its effects. They will bring a higher return on investment than work on transformational technologies and while we don’t want to have to choose between these important options, we must because we have limited resources.

So, as a first lesson of the recent failures of this Congress on energy and climate, let’s try to understand what works in this regard and how the greatest amount of green progress can come from the greatest amount of attention to our families’ and businesses’ economic interests.

But our second lesson may be just as important.

We have to accept that the U.S. Congress isn’t going to do anything meaningful to produce energy or climate legislation any time soon. If they couldn’t do it with a big democratic majority, a president who has asserted his commitment to these issues, an energy crisis in the gulf, ever stronger evidence of the urgency of combating climate change, and the cost of two wars that are motivated both by a desire to quash oil-producer sponsored terrorists and to stabilize an important source of U.S. oil, then they are not going to do it in the foreseeable future. The Democratic majority will shrink, the president will be distracted by re-election, the memories of the Gulf disaster will ebb and we will wind down our presence in Iraq. 

The need for reform will remain, though. And that will require answers that do not depend on the U.S. Congress. On the one hand, that will mean that the administration will have to use existing legislation and enforcement tools. On the other, it will mean creative collaboration with the private sector and other governments to find paths that do not require major new legislation.

For example, last week, while the failure of the energy bill on the Hill drew all the attention, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu convened a Clean Energy Ministerial that brought together ministers and stakeholders from more than 20 countries worldwide to identify ways the countries could voluntarily collaborate on reducing emissions. The meeting, which was shockingly under-covered by the U.S. media, resulted in agreements to work together on energy efficiency projects and clean energy initiatives that could ultimately have the effect of eliminating the need to build as many as 500 mid-sized power plants by 2030 and which might bring useful tools like solar lanterns to perhaps 10 million people by 2015. 

The meeting was only a first step but another agreement it produced was for two follow-on ministerials, one in Abu Dhabi next year and one in the U.K. the year after.  Beyond that it delivered an important message: There’s much that can be done using tools that are already in place. If Washington can’t get an energy bill and the world can’t get a climate deal, the need to move forward remains and there are important mechanisms for doing so. Some… like much tougher enforcement of existing laws… will be very uncomfortable for some people. Some will require real creativity and new kinds of public-private partnerships. Still others will recognize that some of the most important tools we have — like the enlightened self-interest manifest by the Chinese among others — are already out there and waiting to be better harnessed worldwide. (We shouldn’t give up on pushing for taxing carbon, tougher limits or more resources for clean tech. We should just be very hard-nosed about what’s possible and making the most of it.)

One last point regarding the Chu ministerial, when the final history of what happened around the Gulf disaster is written, watch for the details of the role played by this administration’s Nobel Prize-winner. Despite having no jurisdictional responsibility for the spill, Chu quickly and effectively established himself as a vital resource not just for the president but also for BP and the entire team working on the spill, providing vital, engaged, creative leadership and, in so doing, deeply strengthening President Obama’s appreciation for the man who may be one of the administration’s most under-appreciated stars. 

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