Start the Green Revolution Without U.S.

03/16/2011 06:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bill Chameides Dean, Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment

Stop the green revolution -- we want to get off. Has this become America's new mantra?

"Green energy revolution" is part of the lexicon. Try Googling it; I got more than a million hits this morning.

This Was Then

Not all that long ago, it seemed Americans had decided that for economic, national security, and environmental reasons we were going to be enthusiastic participants.

Lots of folks were calling for the revolution, beating the drum of an economic expansion spurred by green innovation.

Cheerleader-in-chief was our own President Obama who in 2009 eloquently identified it as a cornerstone for economic growth: "We have to lay a new foundation for prosperity -- a foundation constructed on the pillars that will grow our economy and help America compete in the 21st century. And a renewable energy revolution is one of those pillars."


Time was when many were calling for a green revolution. Now? Seems the pendulum is swinging in a new direction. But that too could change.

Just a year before, the International Energy Agency, a group of 28 member countries that "implement an international program of energy cooperation," declared, "What is needed is nothing short of an energy revolution."

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman weighed in with his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, enumerating the many reasons "why we need a green revolution."

In 2010 billionaire Bill Gates, the Harvard-dropout-cum-computer-visionary who brought us Microsoft, was concerned about funding the revolution, rhetorically asking in an interview whether "the energy sector [can] finance its own revolution and create these great R&D jobs here in America." And then going on to suggest the government step up with significant funds.

Lots of folks were volunteering to be on the revolution's front lines.

Case in point: in 2010 the IEEE (aka the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the professional association for engineers that dates back to 1884 and is "dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence") devoted a special multimedia edition of its e-zine, Spectrum, to "Engineers of the New Millennium: The Energy Revolution."

And then there were some especially sanguine individuals. Greg Wetstone, senior director for government and public affairs at the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, declared in 2009: "The clean energy revolution is here now."

This Is Now

But Wetstone may have spoken too soon, for the pendulum has clearly swung in the other direction. The beat of the green-revolution rock replaced by a renewed "no can do" refrain. Consider the following:

Exhibit A: The House of Representative's proposed budget would dramatically cut loan guarantees for renewable technologies, and slash government funds targeting clean-tech R&D and implementation of energy-efficiency measures, reversing gains, some might be surprised to learn, from the Energy Policy Act of 2005, signed by President George W. Bush.

Exhibit B: Some governors, such as Florida's Rick Scott, are refusing federal funds to finance construction of modern high-speed rail and other mass transit projects.

Exhibit C: Congress is tooling up to repeal efficiency standards for light bulbs that were set by the Energy Independence and Security Act signed by President George W. Bush in 2007.

Exhibit D: Drivers in New York City are clamoring against newly established bicycle lanes (apparently they're crowding out SUVs).

Exhibit E: State governments are considering repeal of green initiatives, such as programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (see here and here).

Exhibit F: And, of course, the House is preparing to pass a bill forbidding the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases.

Could be that the world will have to start the green revolution without the U.S. Then again, pendulums that swing one way eventually swing back. Will it swing fast enough to give us a competitive position in the push for new energy technologies? Can the green revolutionaries rock the status quo and get that cheese grater going against the grain? Anybody's guess, but it will likely say a lot about what kind of country we become.

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