02/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Insurmountable Opportunity"

One of the biggest and most fateful choices Barack Obama will make as president will be the shape of the nearly $1 trillion economic stimulus package that Congress will likely pass within the next two months. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to steer a new generation of public investment into the kinds of initiatives that will not just revive the economy but restore our international competitiveness for the long run -- and save the planet from catastrophic climate change along with it. However, as Thomas Friedman wrote on January 10 in his New York Times column, "If China and America each give birth to a pig -- a big, energy-devouring, climate-spoiling stimulus hog -- our kids are done for. It will be the burden of their lifetimes."

The chance may not come again, not only because we can't keep spending so deeply into debt year after year, but because a rapidly mounting profusion of evidence is showing that we may only have a few years left to halt the growth in carbon emissions before climate change reaches an irreversible tipping point that will stress life on earth in ways that human civilization has never known.

The temptation to make this stimulus package the mother of all legislative Christmas trees of pork barrel spending is going to be unprecedented. Beyond the politics, there will be a strong economic logic to spending the money fast on building and repair projects that are ready to go, even ones as ludicrous as a museum of organized crime. Such spending may or may not shorten the current recession. Some of it -- like making all government buildings well insulated and energy-efficient -- will help the economy and the environment both. But most of what is waiting in the wings now will not create the greener, smarter, more inventive society that we need to keep America from sinking permanently into second-rate status in science and technology, while much of our land slowly sinks under water due to the effects of climate change.

The only path of genuine revival is a visionary program that brings together in one bold package the four "e's": economy, energy, environment, and education. As John Doerr, one of America's most visionary venture capitalists, has been saying recently to Congress and anyone else who will listen, renewable energy is to the current moment what the computer chip was to a previous generation -- the basis for remaking and igniting an entire global economy. It is not just that we must effect a sweeping and radical transition away from fossil fuels if we are to arrest global warming, and, for that matter, put petro-dictators like Putin, Chavez, and Ahmadinejad out of business. It is also that there is a staggering amount of money to be made at it, and the countries and companies that produce this technology first are going to be the winners of the next great global economic boom. "Everywhere you turn," Doerr told a packed auditorium at Stanford University on Monday, "you are confronted by insurmountable opportunity."

Doerr was at Stanford to participate in a panel discussion celebrating the launch of a new $100 million research institute on energy. One of the largest program gifts in the University's history, the money (largely the generous gifts of Stanford alumni Jay Precourt, Thomas Steyer, and Kat Taylor) will enable Stanford to bring together new faculty and graduate students and fund research that will develop a host of new energy innovations, such as dramatically cheaper and more efficient photovoltaic cells and batteries. And it will also tackle a wide range of other challenges, including the social, economic, and political ones, involved in shifting away from fossil fuels to truly sustainable forms of energy.

As Doerr said at Stanford, what we need to be investing in now are not so much the old forms of infrastructure -- for example, more roads and bridges that will carry more carbon-belching cars -- but a truly national electricity grid that can carry the renewable energy we can already produce efficiently, like wind power, to far-flung parts of the country that desperately need it. We need dramatically more federal money for research to develop the solar cells, advanced batteries, wind turbines, carbon capture and other technologies of the future; even a university as rich and innovative as Stanford can only do so much. We need to send the right price signals to the markets now to accelerate development and installation of these renewable energy sources -- and this means a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system, or both. And we need to invest in training a new generation of scientists and engineers to produce these innovations, beginning with effective science and math teaching in grade school. This, in turn, as Thomas Friedman has recently written, means paying elementary and secondary teachers, especially in science and math, what they are really worth to our society, and recruiting more of them.

Friedman shows compellingly in his remarkable new book, Hot, Flat and Crowded -- and leading entrepreneurs and scientists like Doerr, Obama's new Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt are pleading -- that we have to get going now to seize the opportunity of the next great global economic revolution, the green economy. America is falling behind in the technological race and there is no time to lose. As Doerr warned at Stanford, the U.S. now has only six of the top 30 global companies in this sector.

How we deal during these next few months and years with the nexus of four crises -- economy, energy, environment, and education -- will determine whether America retains its global leadership, and whether the globe retains anything like its existing biodiversity, and thus its ability ultimately to sustain humanity itself. This, more than anything else, represents "the fierce urgency of now." As Eric Schmidt told the Stanford audience, we must not miss the opportunity in this crisis.

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