THE BLOG
04/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Between the Idea and the Reality Falls the Shadow

I'm not certain what T. S. Eliot meant by these lines in his poem "The Hollow Men":

     Between the idea

     And the reality

     Between the motion

     And the act

     Falls the Shadow

No one is. But it seems appropriate to quote them now, because some Shadow is creating a chasm between the vision of a clean-energy future for America, the reality that such a future is both urgently needed and already being born, and the depressing, almost despairing, inability of our politics to grasp and empower that future.

I don't know what the Shadow is, but I can see the chasm.

Begin with the Idea. President Obama once again articulated it in his State of the Union Message, as he often has before:

"I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy. I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here's the thing -- even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future -- because the nation that leads the clean-energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation. "

The upside of clean energy is looking brighter and brighter. The consulting firm McKinsey has produced yet another detailed road map for reforming America's energy sector (and making tons of money). They calculate that each year that we don't adopt cost-saving, economically lucrative energy efficiency and performance reforms, it costs our economy $130 billion dollars.

At the same time, continuing our dependence on oil and coal looks worse and worse. The price of oil is threatening our economic recovery, as well as our national security. Oil is up $30 since President Obama took office. Every $30 increase in the price of oil sucks $150 billion a year out of the American economy -- more than the economic stimulus will put in next year. Although U.S. demand for oil is still down from its peak, we are no longer the only market maker in petroleum. China recently completed its own strategic petroleum reserve: 102 million barrels.

As for the American people: They get it. A whole series of recent polls show continued high support for a rapid transition away from dirty energy and imported oil. Even Newt Gingrich's old polling guru, Frank Luntz, understands that this is a good election issue. He writes that voters fear that "this great technological industry will be developed in China and India, rather than America. "

And what about the Reality? There's actually lots to be hopeful about. America and the world are moving inexorably away from coal and oil -- because they must.

The president's vision in his State of the Union message was promptly followed by a 2010 budget that would make good on that vision. Among other innovations, it proposes to strip $40 billion in subsidies from fossil fuels. Revenues from a comprehensive climate bill are incorporated, as are loan guarantees for renewables and energy performance -- enough to generate $50 billion in new clean-energy investments in 2010 alone.

In 2009, both wind and solar had by far their best years ever in the U.S. Wind was up 39 percent over 2008, which had been its previous record year. Solar installations in 2010 are expected to double over 2009's record.  Demand for oil remained stuck well below its 2007 peak. Demand for coal and for electricity generated by coal tanked, with coal falling by 9.4 percent, while natural gas picked up the difference between coal and the renewables/efficiency combination.

The U.S. Treasury Department has announced that it will shift its emphasis in international multilateral-aid activities from coal to low-carbon energy sources.

The day after the State of the Union, the president announced a major U.S. investment of $9 billion into high speed rail. 

China featured prominently in the president's speech as a nation racing toward a clean-energy future. Only three days later, a front page New York Times story, headlined "China Is Leading Global Race to Make Clean Energy" quoted K.K. Chan, a private equity fund in Beijing, as predicting that "most of the energy equipment will carry a brass plate, 'Made in China.' "

And China is moving on shutting down its dirty energy as well. In the face of widespread criticism of its role in Copenhagen, China is moving to fulfill its promises. In only weeks, Beijing amended its laws to promote more renewable energy, ordered the State Grid to buy renewable energy, and vowed to close down another 10 gigawatts of inefficient coal-fired power plants in 2010, even though the country had already met the five-year plan target for closing such plants.

American energy companies are joining the bandwagon away from coal and oil. One of the nation's biggest coal companies, CONSOL, announced recently that 40 percent of its capital spending in 2010 would go toward developing its natural gas business. Consol's CEO: "In looking beyond 2010, I believe that spending on coal will migrate to maintenance of production levels, while gas will likely be the growth vehicle. While a lot can happen between now and 2011, I currently envision that coal capital will be lower in 2011, while gas spending will be higher. "

Exxon-Mobil, the biggest of the global international oil companies, and one that depends heavily on foreign sources, made  a similar shift -- spending $41 billion to purchase XTO Energy, a U.S. producer of unconventional natural gas.

Even Shell Oil, a major investor in Canada's tar sands (probably climate science's worst nightmare), has announced that although that business is still very profitable, it's shifting away from it to lower-carbon resources like natural gas.

But then there is the Shadow.

The Shadow is a debased public dialogue and a fractured politics that might slow this transition down just enough to destroy the American economy, permanently shift global power to forces hostile to our values, and forever disrupt the global climate and world agriculture.

Take one data point. When I Googled the phrase "news, glaciers, melting, global warming" today, the first five hits all related to the controversy over two botched pages of data in the four-volume IPCC report on global warming. No doubt, the IPCC blew this finding. And the evidence strongly suggests that it should have caught the mistake, that questions had been raised, and that it was sloppy science. 

But replacing the flawed data doesn't change any of the core findings or recommendations of the IPCC. In a normal context the reaction would be "no harm, no foul." In fact, that we have more than a decade to end the pollution that is melting the Himalayan glaciers should be good news for everyone. The patient is sick, but not as sick as we feared. But this is not, of course, a normal context. The "delay at any cost" lobby jumped all over this blunder in an effort to undercut public support for action on the problem.

On the other hand, you have to look very deep into the Google search results to find a much more important recent scientific finding that should completely settle the question of whether the climate is warming. So many glaciers have melted on the slopes of the Southern Andes that the mountains, no longer compressed by the weight of the ice, are actually getting higher at a dramatically increased pace. 

So the Shadow means that almost everyone paying attention to the news will hear that there is something fishy about the next chapter of the global-warming-is-melting-glaciers connection, while almost no one will hear that the indisputable, already-happening part of the story is stunning and dramatic.

Another aspect of the Shadow is that although the Obama administration is trying to shift international aid away from coal and oil and toward renewables and energy innovation, and although officially the developing world is asking for aid to make exactly that transition, and although Europe is lamenting that the U.S. is too slow and unambitious -- the U.S. efforts to shift funding are being vociferously attacked. In response to the U.S. Treasury announcement that it wanted to encourage low carbon-fuels, a vociferous response emerged from the rest of the world. Nine World Bank executive directors, representing a total of 90 nations, called the U.S. plan "inequitable and unacceptable." They also accused the United States, which is the largest shareholder in the World Bank, of bulldozing other countries by taking the proposal directly to World Bank President Robert Zoellick without first discussing it with others. 

"The Bank should be concerned about climate change only to the extent it impinges upon the efforts of the developing countries toward achieving poverty alleviation and economic growth," the directors wrote.

"If the U.S. had indicated its intention to retire its coal based power plants for replacement by renewable energy to free up space in the global commons to enable poorer countries to set up coal-fueled power plants to access cheaper electricity, the developing world would have welcomed such an initiative."

Note: No one will say that they are trying to preserve market opportunities for coal but, whatever the stated motivation, that is the result.

The Government of India had made, in the run up to Copenhagen, an impressive commitment to solar energy through a system of power-purchase agreements -- 20 megawatts of solar was the commitment. But getting to that level was dependent on a system of climate finance emerging from Copenhagen. So earlier this month India quietly scaled back to 5 megawatts -- because the funding stream simply wasn't reliable. 

India was one of the signatories of the letter complaining about U.S. efforts to shift international finance away from coal and toward clean energy. The Shadow again.

And the Shadow was present even in the State of the Union message and budget. It was present when President Obama, who is on public record as understanding that neither new nuclear reactors nor "clean coal" make any economic sense in the 21st century, proclaimed that they were now a core part of his energy vision. The Shadow loomed when the president's budget proposed $54 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear energy, on the fantastical grounds that these loan guarantees will cost taxpayers nothing. It's important to understand that even this level of loan guarantees will only result in the construction of NINE new nukes -- fewer than will be retired over the same period. Hardly a nuclear future. And the Shadow was present when, in an apparent response to the outraged protests of his efforts to redirect foreign aid to clean energy, the budget permitted aid for fossil-fuel energy -- as long as it was 50 percent lower in carbon than conventional facilities.

So what is the Shadow?

Here, I think I differ with Eliot. Most critics believe that Eliot was fearful of the wisdom of the past being supplanted by the future. The "shadow" of Eliot's poem was human imperfection. It was modernity, which had hollowed the human dialogue. I can't go along if that is what he meant.

But there is another reading of the poem, a reading I prefer, in which it is the heavy hand of the past that creates devastation and inertia. One critic's comment on the poem could stand as a testament to where the world stands this week, as we face both the climate opportunity and the climate crisis. "The hollow men exist in a world where taking any action whatsoever would bring to an end their suffering, yet they are held back by their fear of the unknown even as they realize it may be their salvation." 

Let's act on a new energy future. Let's fuse the idea and the reality.

We need not be Hollow Men.