The Door is Opening

I’m generally a believer in the notion that there is some truth to the ideas of both the left and the right. Take economics for example: both conservative and liberal economic theories have merit, because supply and demand are very real forces of nature, and because we know from experience that government intervention can boost the economy and raise living standards. Which school of thought one subscribes to is largely dependent on which arguments one finds more compelling, and there are plenty of credible and qualified economists who support both theories.

Climate change is not such an issue. The world’s scientists are virtually unanimous in their finding that humans’ release of greenhouse gasses is causing a warming of the atmosphere and a disturbance of global climates, a shift that threatens to become irreversible and will have disastrous consequences for the planet. These are the facts as established by those who have the ability to observe what is happening, and they are not in dispute.

Perhaps there’s no point in making the environmental case for a more efficient America; those who truly grasp the severity of the situation need no further exhortation, and those who reject the facts—for whatever reason—will not be convinced now.

Yet the latter should consider that there’s a strategic vision at play here: embracing renewable energy opens the door to energy security, a national security imperative we do not currently meet, but beyond mere security lies the opportunity for our country to prosper in a whole new way.

Picture a future in which the United States is the energy titan of the Americas—or, thanks to underwater power lines, the world. It’s a future in which America has invested its full industrious might in harnessing renewable energy sources, and as a result produces enormous annual electricity surpluses at low cost. Because the utilities reap massive profits selling their surplus to other countries, they don’t need to charge Americans, who pay next to nothing for electricity. In fact, Americans scarcely remember their past of rising electricity bills and wild fluctuations at the pump (to say nothing of poor air quality and polluted waterways); they’re too busy zipping around in electric cars and enjoying world-class public transit, funded largely by a tax the utilities pay on their foreign sales—instead of by our tax dollars. It’s a future of autonomy, security, and prosperity that’s borne of efficiency; rather than depending on other countries for oil, other countries depend on us as they buy the clean electricity we generate for free. We ourselves depend on nothing but the sun and the wind.

Thanks to the United States’ wealth and development, this future is entirely within our reach—but how do we get there?

First and foremost, we must accelerate the pivot from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Due to our reliance on fossil fuels, almost a third of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from electricity generation; this value need not be higher than zero. By transitioning to a renewable grid as quickly as possible, we can achieve self-sufficiency, slash our carbon emissions, and improve public health.

Secondly, with more than a quarter of our carbon emissions coming from transportation, we need to get more electric vehicles on the road. This shift will become self-fulfilling as the increasing share of renewable energy in our grid makes electricity cheaper, but will require deliberate action while that transition begins in earnest. In the meantime, we must improve on the fuel efficiency of hybrid and conventional vehicles and increase the availability of clean public transit. Automakers love to complain about stricter efficiency requirements, but they’ll have to contend with this reality anyways if they want to compete in markets like Europe and Canada. If anything, having similar standards here will spare them the need to produce more engine types.

Industrial pollution is the last major component of our carbon emissions, and must be addressed by an innovative, market-based solution: a national cap-and-trade program. Pollution has a real cost in human health and in property damage caused by the storms, droughts, and floods attributable in part to climate change. A cap-and-trade program would see major polluters repay those who suffer under their emissions: the American people.

These are ambitious steps to enact an ambitious vision, and government will have to get involved at all levels—local, state, and federal—to help us achieve them. Lobbyists and politicians funded by some of our largest corporations will argue exhaustively that the government has no business making regulations to advance this vision, but it’s clear that doing so would serve the public interest. Is that not the point of government?

Of course, our approach should use regulation only as a tool of last resort, relying instead on more subtle actions like financial incentives for major producers and consumers of renewable energy. Special interests will object to this too, asserting that such moves would distort the energy market and create a ‘false economy’—an argument that highlights the billions of dollars in subsidies received by the fossil fuel industry each year. We must begin phasing these out immediately; if the government is going exert influence on the economy—as it can and should, when doing so serves the public interest—it should be subsidizing technologies that are beneficial, not harmful.

The government does need to exercise extreme prudence in how it advances the above goals, and it should do so in close cooperation with the private sector. But as long as our largest polluters remain fiercely opposed to the changes we need to make, no amount of prudence will quiet their lobbyists. It’s an ill-advised stance that begs yet another argument in favor of an efficient America: money.

To be frank, there’s a big shift coming in how we live and operate, and there’s good money to be made in embracing that shift. The spirit of capitalism is one of energy, innovation, and opportunism, as illustrated by the long American tradition of individuals and companies exploiting change to reap great rewards. Established titans like Koch Industries and Devon Energy decry the coming changes as onerous and expensive, seemingly oblivious of this unique opportunity to position themselves as the premier providers of what the country is only just realizing it needs. If it’s their shareholders they’re worried about, they should help get as many electric vehicles on the road as possible—heck, why not produce them themselves?—and then put up a wind farm and sell their carbon credits. Their shareholders will be thanking them in short order.

Forestalling the worst of climate change is the most compelling reason to embrace an efficient America, but it's far from the only reason. By responding aggressively to the causes of climate change, we can create an opportunity to realize great benefits for our planet, our economy, and our country.

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