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There’s still hope — despite our milquetoast* leaders

by Stephen Hesse

In the runup to the Group of Eight summit held this month in a stupendously policed corner of Japan’s most remote northern island, there was widespread expectation that little would be achieved on the environmental agenda.

True to form, the big shots’ huddle did not disappoint: Nothing at all was accomplished.

For those who had any lingering doubts, the Hokkaido G8 meeting conclusively proved that our “international leaders,” who shared the ultimate in luxurious accommodations and gastronomic delights, lack any inspiring ideas or the political will to confront global climate change.

And yet these are the lynchpins upon which an ongoing, sustainable human society depends.

At a time when we need true leadership at the global level, the best these so-called leaders could do was agree to “seek to share the vision of achieving at least a 50 percent reduction in global [greenhouse-gas] emissions by 2050.”

Seek a shared vision — by 2050?! Can politicians get any more milquetoast?

Equally frustrating is that few, if any, of these heads of state (21 men and one woman) will be around in 2050 to answer for their dereliction of duty to humanity. Whether they even care about their own children and grandchildren is uncertain, but perhaps they hope that by banking enough cash and favors now, their own offspring will be able to ride out the worst of climate change — or at least suffer less than everyone else’s.

So don’t look to the White House, Downing Street or Tokyo’s Nagatacho for leadership dealing with the first truly global challenge facing human society.

Beyond the moribund halls of politics, however, there is no shortage of ideas for responding to climate change. Policymakers, entrepreneurs and scientists worldwide are churning out plans, programs and technologies that offer means to cut fossil-fuel dependence, to cut carbon-dioxide emissions, to ensure energy independence and national security — and to ensure that our corn and grain crops go into people’s stomachs rather than into cars and trucks as ethanol.

In recent weeks alone, three major proposals have been released that call for dramatic changes in the way the world, and the (most gross polluter) United States in particular, does business. This is important because if the U.S. can get on the right track, it’s likely that the rest of the world will, too.

Last month, U.S. environmental-policy maven Lester Brown and his Earth Policy Institute released a report titled “Time for Plan B: Cutting Carbon Emissions 80 Percent by 2020.” Rather than a vague G8 “vision” of hope for change over four decades, this is a concrete plan to cut world CO2 emissions by 80 percent within 11 years.

Then last week, Al Gore (he whose U.S. presidency was stolen) went one better, challenging America “to commit to producing 100 percent of (its) electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.”

Gore believes that the U.S. can get the lion’s share of its energy from electricity — and that it can harvest almost all of that electricity from the wind, the sun and from geothermal sources (www.wecansolveit.org).

The third proposal comes from another heavyweight, American financier, oilman and entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens. The Pickens Plan calls for greater reliance on wind to generate electricity, which would free up natural gas for use as a transportation fuel (www.pickensplan.com).

Pickens wants to spend $1 trillion to build new wind-generation facilities across the central U.S, and another $200 billion to upgrade the national electric grid. Once the U.S. is producing 20 percent of its electricity from the wind, the natural gas that is now used to generate electricity can instead be used in vehicles, allowing the U.S. to reduce dependence on foreign oil by one third within 10 years, he claims.

Green Energy News notes that both Gore and Pickens are also calling for an improved national power grid.

But at least one obstacle stands in the way of realizing either plan — or any other innovative projects, for that matter — GEN points out.

“Unfortunately, both plans have something else in common, and it’s ugly. They call for leadership, and perhaps cash, from Washington: Two things now lacking inside the D.C. beltway,” warns the GEN website

Another major problem: time is not on our side.

We do not have 40, 30 or even 20 years to wait for leaders who are courageous enough to act. We need to begin right now in order to realize substantial changes in energy sourcing and greenhouse-gas emissions within 10 to 15 years.

Fortunately, calls for action are no longer limited to specialized media outlets (and The Japan Times). The mainstream media are finally plucking up the courage (despite the risk of losing advertisers’ revenue) to point fingers and shake us out of our complacency.

Last week, for example, New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman likened the U.S. to a crack addict.

“When a person is addicted to crack cocaine, his problem is not that the price of crack is going up,” he wrote. “His problem is what that crack addiction is doing to his whole body. The cure is not cheaper crack, which would only perpetuate the addiction and all the problems it is creating. The cure is to break the addiction.

“Ditto for us. Our cure is not cheaper gasoline, but a clean energy system. And the key to building that is to keep the price of gasoline and coal — our crack — higher, not lower, so consumers are moved to break their addiction to these dirty fuels and inventors are moved to create clean alternatives,” Friedman wrote in his July 20 column.

Friedman is talking about the U.S., but his prognosis applies to societies worldwide: We are all addicted to fossil fuels, and cold-turkey withdrawal may be the only way for us to break free.

Quitting a habit such as smoking is never easy. Sometimes we won’t quit until a doctor tells us that our habit is killing us. Some smokers even choose to smoke themselves to death rather than quit. Think oil and coal companies, their shareholders, and the politicians they finance.

Still, as the Earth Policy Institute explains, “Priorities can shift when a country’s way of life is at stake.”

“Today the stakes are higher: it is the future of civilization that is at risk,” notes EPI in its 80-by-2020 proposal.

“We have the technologies to restructure the world energy economy and reshape land-use practices to stabilize climate. The challenge now is to build the political will to do so. The choice is ours. If we decide to act now, we can be the generation that changes direction, moving the world onto a path of sustained progress,” explains EPI.

There it is: We have the technologies and capabilities but, to date, not the political will.

If, however, the will can be found, how does EPI propose cutting CO2 emissions by 80 percent over the next 12 years?

Luckily it’s not rocket science; in fact, it’s just a question of changing some very basic things about the way we do business.

“First, investing in energy efficiency will allow us to keep global energy demand from increasing. Then we can cut carbon emissions by one-third by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources for electricity and heat production. A further 14 percent drop comes from restructuring our transportation systems and reducing coal and oil use in industry. Ending net deforestation worldwide can cut CO2 emissions another 16 percent. Last, planting trees and managing soils to sequester carbon can absorb 17 percent of our current emissions,” explains the EPI plan.

“None of these initiatives depends on new technologies. We know what needs to be done to reduce CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2020. All that is needed now is leadership,” adds the report.

Once again, the real problem: leaders who don’t lead; a dearth of political will as money — very, very big money — calls the shots.

Both Lester Brown and Al Gore recognize that the time has come for major change.

“Cutting CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2020 will take a worldwide mobilization at wartime speed,” warns EPI.

Gore, too, is sounding a clarion call for U.S. and global action.

“There are times in the history of our nation when our very way of life depends upon dispelling illusions and awakening to the challenge of a present danger. . . . This is such a moment. The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk. And even more — if more should be required — the future of human civilization is at stake,” he said last week.

If global action is going to happen, the U.S. needs to be a leader, not a reluctant follower. And for that the time is right. With the Bush era coming to a close in January 2009, Americans finally have a chance to ask for, and get, informed leadership on energy policies.

Both the U.S. presidential candidates — John McCain and Barak Obama — know that Americans want to break free of dependence on foreign oil, and their advisers know that clean, renewable energies are the safest, most sustainable way to do that.

U.S. oil, coal and nuclear power interests will do whatever they can to ensure that the next president does the profitable thing — sticking with the oil and coal status quo — rather than the right thing.

But McCain or Obama will have a choice. The defining issue of the next president’s first term will not be Iraq. It will be whether he can quickly and definitively take the national, and international, lead in establishing energy independence and managing climate change.

Just for a start, the new president could recruit Brown, Gore or Pickens as Chief of Homeland Energy Security.

Numerous good ideas are already on the table. All we need now is a leader.

* Milquetoast is defined by Webster’s New World College Dictionary as: “A timid, shrinking, apologetic person.’

Stephen Hesse can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com