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Running On Empty At The Aspen Ideas Festival

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"Americans do the right thing after they have exhausted all other possibilities." Quoting Churchill, Jim Woolsey, former C.I.A. chief, predicted about action on climate change. That was the optimistic take from the Aspen Ideas festival this week.

"We're headed toward the rapids," said John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, on the same panel.

It is difficult to come away from the discussions without profound doubts about our will and ability to do what we should have been doing for the last ten years: switching to electric or hybrid vehicles; providing tax subsidies for wind, solar, and geothermal development; mandating green architecture; utilizing energy conservation technology; carbon taxes and sequestration; and leadership to move these practical and life saving practices from pause to fast forward.

The current administration has neutered the EPA and talked about "oil addiction" while encouraging more drilling and ignoring its own words. Talking the talk and walking the walk have never been farther apart. The pain this will inflict on the world is just now beginning to hit us, at the pump and in harmful weather patterns.

Dr. John Holdren, a scientist from Harvard spoke of the parts per million with which anthropogenic carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide fill the air and at what point those levels produce catastrophic change in our climate. And then there is the methane gas that the melting ice on the tundra will add to the mix. To reverse those levels will take all the technology, leadership and will that we have. The sea ice in the artic is melting at a rate that it may disappear this year or next. Rising seas are predicted to obliterate Florida and Cape Cod in the not too distant future. His conclusion was that we will have to "mitigate, adapt and suffer."

Tom Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, speaking to a packed audience on his new book, "Hot, Flat and Crowded" coupled optimism with the serious stresses on the worlds' resources from an increasing population, sea level rise that will affect migration from Bangladesh to the Caribbean, and a world without enough energy to power its needs. He describes the existing available talent and solutions, but the infrastructure for these new energy sources and their delivery systems is not yet in place. On the other hand, once we have some real leadership, we can begin a new era of job creation and economic growth.

Right now, we are watching the formation of the perfect storm. The factors of economic hardship caused by our dependence on Saudi and other foreign oil are a clear and present danger. They are hurting our productivity, our agriculture, our national security, the structure of our lives and our pride. When our president visited Saudi Arabia recently to plead for more oil, the Saudis presented him with a bicycle. Combine those factors with rising temperatures, crop destruction, food and water shortages, and loss of species at an unprecedented rate, and, well, not just "Houston, we have a problem," but world, we have a problem. By the way, we are a species, too, so we need to pay attention. Just a little intelligent planning could have prevented this abrupt, disruption. It's enough to make a person cross, even testy.

So, we have some choices to make. A new energy tapestry must be woven. It will take many new technologies and innovations, or it can be a nightmare of false choices and lack of political will. The wrong choices will lead to a nasty mess or we can unleash our talent and our will power and create a masterpiece the world will emulate.

How we steer around this perfect storm ultimately is up to us. If we choose the right leaders and if we are insistent enough, they will do the right thing and make the right choices. What we know for certain is that if we are not actively involved in our future, our future may not happen. Democracy imposes this responsibility on us. Are we up for the challenge?

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