January 2009: Backsliding on Energy and the Global Environment?

November 28, 2008

Energy and climate change. Come January 2009, those issues are what I like to see the Obama White House take on. I will be on a citizen watch to see if he will follow through on his campaign promise to make America a global energy leader.





America’s addiction to foreign oil has grown by over 20 percent between 1992 and 2005 and now costs up to $1.5 billion a day. An ever-growing portion of the national wealth is being transferred continuously to oil-producing regimes, some of them volatile, despotic and unfriendly to the US like Venezuela.


US carbon dioxide emissions from energy use also increased 15 percent between 1993 and 2005. The effects of global warming are real, and presents serious threats like ever-stronger hurricanes and the sea-level rise that threatens to cause massive damages in US coastal areas.


Energy dependence and climate change are threats to US national security. But can the US afford to worry only about itself?


In the chapter on “Powering a Twenty-First-Century Economy” of his book, The First Campaign, Garrett Graff proposes that “the US must be a strong international leader on the environment to encourage other nations to follow our lead.”  Promoting environmental stewardship and clean energy, Graff asserts that “”inaction will bring about the end of civilization.”


Is that an exaggeration? Probably not.


Graff argues that greater energy security on a global scale—including countries like China and India—would lead to more political stability, stronger democratic institutions, and less pressures on the US to send troops “on around-the-world tours to secure oil fields.”  The US can forge that global energy security by leading the development of “clean, renewable, and sustainable sources of energy for the world community.”


Less competition, less conflict.


Are we all really that interconnected? What if the US abdicated from that role, as it has done during the past decades?  We need not look too far to see the consequences. We are still living through a global financial crisis attributed to the failure of mortgage securities, the banking system and financial market regulation in the US. (And within the next 50 years, we may be heading toward global water wars. Not to mention wars for global fisheries. How will those conflicts embroil the US? As the world’s superpower, it is also the world’s global policeman, like it or not.)


Drawing lessons from the success of Obama’s Internet campaign, and given the large number of often-conflictive stakeholders in the energy debate, the Obama White House should launch a national conversation on sustainable energy and climate change using new media and social engagement techniques. 


But will it happen?


Let us hope so. The current economic slump may be imposing limits to the promotion of clean energy. With people worried about preserving their incomes today, protecting the environment may continue to be considered as a luxury.


To watch: how long Obama’s economic team will keep the development and deployment of climate-friendly energy technologies—and the resulting creation of million of new jobs—as cornerstones of the stimulus plan for the US economy.


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