Road to Copenhagen: Audacious Leadership vs. Nattering Nabobs of Negativism

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Change your thoughts and you change your world.
—Norman Vincent Peale

We are only just beginning to scratch the surface of the power of a positive vision of an abundant future …
—Rob Hopkins, “The Transition Handbook”

During his 10 months in office, President Barack Obama and his team have assembled a respectable list of accomplishments on energy and climate policy. One might conclude the president has done about all he can do with the powers of his office.

One would be wrong. What energy and climate security require — what the future of the American Dream demands — is audacious big-picture ideas that capture the imagination, stir the emotions, speak to the souls, rally the support and win the involvement of the American people. That’s been lacking so far in the President’s climate leadership.

I don’t see evidence that the American people have reached a “yes, we can” moment on climate action. My bet is that most people are still asking “yes we can what?”

President Obama speaks of a “new energy economy”, but that’s an abstraction for many of us. Unless you’re a policy wonk, the climate debate probably is mumbo-jumbo, all about carbon pricing, cap-and-trade architecture and auction allowances. This is not the rhetoric that ignites a mass movement.

I suspect there is a sizeable segment of the American people waiting to be engaged, waiting to have their imaginations triggered, waiting to understand what a new energy economy looks like and what they can do to build it. I’m not saying that citizens can’t act without top-down leadership. Indeed, as President Obama hinted recently in his “Grab a Mop” speech, there’s fundamental unfairness, guaranteed stasis and more than a little buck-passing when we citizens stand on the sidelines, some expecting the White House to do everything, others protesting it is doing far too much.

In regard to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, each of us is capable of grabbing a mop and mopping. It’s as easy as turning off the lights. But there is tremendous motivation in knowing that we’re part of a mop uprising, a society-wide mopping mission, with a common understanding of why we’re mopping. Dedication to visions and common causes is what got us through World War II, landed us on the moon, secured the legal rights of women and minorities, and built the interstate highway system.

The leader who first steps forward to communicate a clear vision of a sustainable world and who stirs us to act as a nation – he or she will be a leader for the ages. That’s because the climate challenge isn’t just about the weather. It’s about a fundamental reordering of our species’ relationship with nature. It’s about ending an epoch of mankind as megalomaniac. It’s about accepting our dependence on natural systems and other countries.

If interdependence sounds like Gaia-speak, then think of the swine flu pandemic, the global recession, food riots and climate change itself. It really should not take islands disappearing under the sea to convince us that no man is an island.

If we must fight a war of ideas to win support for sustainable human society, then so be it. Unless America has lost its soul, that war would be no contest.

On one side is the army of hope, fighting for a future that is more secure, moral and genuinely prosperous, where resource conflicts and extreme poverty are distant memories.

On the other side is the Army of No, the foot soldiers of a “no-can-do” society, the paid purveyors of fear, the scalp-hunters and character assassins, rumor mongers, professional dividers and the false prophets of a “business as usual” world that no longer is possible. They use scare words like Hitler, socialism and taxes. They tell us that in a low-carbon society our showers will go cold, our beer will go warm, our jobs will disappear, and our energy bills will bankrupt us.

None of that is true, of course, and it appeals to the worst in us. But we are still a can-do nation. We can build a low-carbon economy that is a low-cost economy. We can have hot showers and cold beer without heating up the atmosphere. We can send our kids off to college rather than sending them to die in oil wars. We can build a new economy and achieve a new and improved American Dream. It’s damned un-American to suggest we can’t.

To accomplish those things, we need big changes motivated by big ideas we can understand and believe in. Here are a few I’ve proposed:

A National Clean Energy Surge: In a speech to a conference in Appalachia last week, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers proposed that the United States become the most energy-efficient nation on the planet. If the chief executive of the country’s third-largest carbon polluter can embrace that big idea, then the White House and the rest of us surely can.

President Obama pointed out during his campaign that 21 countries are more energy-efficient than the United States. We gave up our leadership long ago in key renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power. That doesn’t bode well for our economy, our carbon emissions, or our international competitiveness. The President should set specific stretch goals to improve energy efficiency in every sector of the U.S. economy and to make America the world’s leading consumer and producer of renewable energy.

The Administration has taken a number of steps toward that goal, some small and some more significant: new efficiency rules for vehicles, major new funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program, a directive that new federal buildings require zero-net-energy by 2030, to cite just a few examples. President Obama should bundle up these efforts along with the money in the stimulus bill and the incentives contained in recent energy bills, for an unprecedented campaign that engages every red-blooded American in making our nation the cleanest and most resource-efficient on the planet.

Energizing Rural America: Rural America has a central role to play in our sustainable future. It will be the nation’s principal supplier of low-carbon energy. Farmers, residents and rural small businesses will flourish with new jobs, new income and new tax base from green energy production.

Food and fiber will grow alongside wind farms and solar farms. Feedlots and landfills will capture methane to help power the rural economy. Farmers will grow feed-stocks for cellulosic ethanol on land considered marginal for conventional crops. Farm equipment will run on locally grown low-carbon fuels. Carbon-conscious tillage and forestry management will be a new source of farm revenues in a cap-and-trade economy.

In Congress this year, prominent elements of the farm lobby have fought against this vision, worried that fuel and fertilizers will cost more when we put a price on carbon. But that would only be true if farmers continue relying on carbon-intensive fuels and products, fail to adopt more fuel-efficient equipment and agricultural practices, and decide not to offset higher fossil energy prices by capturing the new income opportunities in green energy. Even then, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the Waxman-Markey bill would reduce annual net farm income only 0.9 percent in the short-term.

That’s a very small price to pay to avoid agriculture’s real parched-earth scenario: climate-induced drought, extreme weather, changed growing patterns, and more pests and plant diseases.

One year ago, the Presidential Climate Action Project gave Obama’s team a policy agenda for rural America’s dynamic role in a new energy economy. Among its ideas are re-missioning the Cooperative Extension Service, rural electrification programs and other applicable federal farm programs to retool rural communities and farms. In the past, rural areas have been the economically distressed stepchildren of the industrial economy. In the future, they will be the powerhouse of our new energy economy.

The Future We Want

Despite the strange box-office appeal of apocalypse, we’re in danger of becoming emotionally battered these days by Hollywood’s versions of civilization’s collapse. An Inconvenient Truth, The Eleventh Hour, The Day After Tomorrow and now 2012 threaten to scare the living optimism out of the American people.

Understanding the terrible consequences of inaction is important. Conservatives use fear as a tool to resist change; climate activists use it to urge change. The problem is, by focusing on collapse with too little counter-focus on what we can build, we are in danger of creating the future we fear.

I believe we are poised for hope. We want hope. We hope for hope. Hope is what got President Obama elected; it should be the foundation on which he rallies us to build an historic legacy at this turning point in the American story. Fifty or 100 years from now, the history books will not say much about health care reform. They will have a great deal to say about what we did or did not do about climate change.

We see trace evidence of our latent hope in the UN’s Hopenhagen campaign, the America 2050 project of the Regional Plan Association in New York, and in the viral video of a yes-we-can speech by Drew Jones of the Sustainability Institute. There’s The Future We Want, in which I and several colleagues will use state-of-the-art communications techniques to show the American people what a sustainable society will be like, and to involve them in designing it.

Legally, the president of the United States has limited power, only what Congress has delegated, the courts have ruled or precedent has established. Emotionally, President Obama has enormous power to inspire. He has a special gift for that, but he has not yet fully used it to enlist us in building a sustainable 21st Century society.


See also:

Road to Copenhagen: Doing the Climate Shuffle

Road to Copenhagen: Managing Risk

Road to Copenhagen: Re-Tooling Industry

Road to Copenhagen: A New Social Contract

Not Waiting for Copenhagen: Sub-National Leaders Forge Ahead with Climate Action

UN Climate Chief Praises China, Says US Must Deliver Concrete 2020 Target

*Thanks to the late William Safire for this newly appropriate phrase.

(Photo: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)