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Steven Cohen


The Political Moment for a Renewable Economy

Posted: 11/12/2012 6:32 pm

The aftermath of President Obama's reelection finds many experts trying to ascertain the deeper meaning of his relatively strong showing. Certainly, there is little question that the demographics of America have changed, and the social change that has been underway for decades has begun to find political expression. We expect politics to reflect the society we live in. That society has gay couples, abortions, immigrants, and a desire for sustainable, eco-friendly economic growth. It was innocence and hope in 2008, but it is something else in 2012. America's political culture is complex, and resists simplistic explanations. The financial shocks of 2008-2009 have had the impact of ending the go-go debt financed spending of the start of the 21st century. Layaway has replaced the 18 percent interest of credit card spending sprees.

In many ways we are a conservative country -- by that I mean careful and prudent. We are willing to change, but also want to maintain much of what we value: family, community, friendships, religious and secular institutions, and country. We have a complicated attitude toward government. We worry about faceless bureaucrats throwing their weight around simply because they can. But we admire first responders, the military, and the public officials that we see deeply committed to public service. We believe in individual responsibility and the value of work, but also understand that many individuals need a helping hand and we support both public and private efforts to help those in need.

Hurricane Sandy's widespread and visible damage has already had a profound impact on a number of policy issues in this region. FEMA, the National Guard, and other parts of the federal, state and local government have been reasonably effective in their designated roles in emergency response, but privately owned electric utilities have performed less well. There is a sense that a stronger governmental hand was needed and that we must somehow develop more resilient and durable energy and transportation infrastructure than the one now in place. No one doubts the central role played by government in providing safety and security during times of danger. I see a growing public demand for a stronger federal government hand in providing national capacity to recover from natural disasters. Since the emergencies will not hit the same places every year, it makes sense to develop a central, but flexible, mobile capacity to provide emergency housing, and to rapidly repair energy, water, waste and transportation infrastructure when it is damaged. A peace-time military could use its logistics capacity to build a rapid response force to restore electricity in 20 hours instead of 20 days.

Middle class and wealthy people who have gone several weeks without electricity are trying to figure out how to power their homes off the grid when necessary. The sale of generators will skyrocket even though a better solution would be solar based and long-term battery storage (once that gets invented). Those who sat in three-hour gas lines have been given a clear lesson in the fragility of our complex energy infrastructure. And with both Irene and Sandy in successive years, people are starting to understand in their gut that climate change is real and will have impact. Hopefully Sandy-like events will remain rare, but this is a storm we will never forget.

Our dependence on energy in all aspects of our lifestyle, and the fragility of our highly centralized energy system should open up the discussion of smart grids and distributed generation of energy. The increased reality of climate impacts could re-open the discussion of renewable, non fossil fuel based energy. A related, if far-fetched connection between deficit reduction and a carbon tax, was recently reported in the Washington Post. According to Post reporter Steven Mufson:

"A relatively moderate-sized carbon tax could raise $1.25 trillion over the next decade, a huge chunk of the money needed to bring the federal budget deficit under control. And the idea is getting a closer look now that the election is over and the "fiscal cliff" is looming.

Because it would tax fossil fuel use, the carbon tax pleases economists who want to encourage investment and discourage consumption. Climate activists hope it would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by penalizing the use of coal, oil and natural gas. And for lawmakers opposed to any change in tax rates or deep cuts in spending, the carbon tax could be a lifeline."

While an increase in the proportion of the GDP spent on energy could be a drag on economic recovery, given the amount of energy wasted in this country, it might instead result in increased energy efficiency which would reduce the economic impact of the tax on energy consumption.

While it is too soon to see if this proposal has any chance at all, the fact that discussion has resumed must be seen an indicator of the enhanced political salience of climate change in wake of Hurricane Sandy and the reelection of President Obama. In my view, the scientific fact of the hurricane, the social and economic fact of its devastation, and the political fact of the Republican defeat provide a brief political moment that creates a real opportunity for the president, should he choose to use it.

The president could build the economic recovery around the need to develop a more sustainable economy. His major infrastructure investment could be a public-private partnership to build a smart grid. His "moon shot" goal should be a low-cost solar receptor and battery that could become as common as a cell phone. The "solar shot" would require heavy investment in science and engineering research and education, which will generate additional and unpredictable economic benefits in the future.

The first term President Obama seized some opportunities such as health care, the economic stimulus, green energy, gay rights and gender equality. But he failed to find an organizing theme to build a message around or leave a legacy. The second term will need to be focused on rebuilding the economy. Just as PlaNYC2030 will be Mike Bloomberg's lasting contribution to the 21st century global city, Barack Obama has an opportunity to build a sustainable economy for the entire nation. It starts with renewable and decentralized energy. It's a theme he could announce at his second inauguration and maintain until the end of his final term.


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