Last week’s National Clean Energy Summit provided a partial snapshot of the status of our nation’s shift toward clean energy. It featured a wide range of presentations representing green building, military, commerce, transportation, utilities, manufacturing and labor interests.
The message was strong and clear: Renewable energy along with a vast array of innovative technology is here and vital to our future. The concept of clean energy includes everything from energy-efficient homes and buildings that power themselves, to electric vehicles and even hybrid ships. Every aspect of our civilization, still banefully dependent on fossil and nuclear fuels, will benefit from the transition. The positive messages from Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others were encouraging to hear.
On the other hand, we’re in a race against ourselves, pitting the benefits of national, energy and climate security against powerful vested interests fighting to maintain the status quo.
The rest of the picture was provided on the other side of the country by another event promoting a clean energy future. In the largest environmental demonstration in a generation, over 1,250 people were arrested during two weeks of peaceful acts of civil disobedience at the White House. They also delivered petitions and letters of support signed by over 600,000 additional Americans.
Their message was equally strong and clear: We must avoid tapping into the largest pool of dirty carbon on the planet, stop the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline and take the clean energy path. You can visit tarsandsaction.org to learn more about this vital issue.
So the complete picture seems to be that on one hand, government, military and industry say they are deeply supporting the development of clean energy. On the other hand American citizens are demonstrating and demanding clean energy. Wait a second. Both government and citizens want the same thing, but it’s not happening. What’s wrong with this picture? Quite a bit it seems.
In simple terms, we are deceiving ourselves. We do not “pay the truth” when it comes to fossil fuels. The truth is that fossil fuels exact a high price on our health, the environment and our national security (not to mention the fact that they are non-renewable and thus irreplaceable) but these costs are not reflected in the price of the product. We then use this artificially low price to measure the relative cost of clean energy. No wonder we’re in a quandary.
We know that climate security is threatened by burning fossil fuels, yet many companies freely use our atmosphere, the one we all breathe, as a private sewer. Look where it is leading us. The effects of climate change have never been more prevalent. Drought plagues large parts of the U.S., Australia and the Horn of Africa, where thousands are dying. Hundred-year storms have become commonplace. In addition, forests are clear-cut, mountains destroyed, streams buried in toxic waste and waterways are poisoned. We are becoming the Fracked States of America as damaging natural gas hydro-fracturing production techniques proliferate across the country, a practice that, incredible as it may seem, is actually exempt from the Clean Water Act. Life in and around the Gulf of Mexico may never fully recover fully and there are new reports that the Macondo well is still leaking and may never be stopped. The East Coast is drowning, Texas is burning, the Gulf is poisoned and the costs are staggering. None of this is reflected in the direct costs of the energy we use.
The dishonesty ingrained in our economic system must be addressed. It is what spawns ecocidal projects like the tar sands and mountaintop destruction in the first place. It does not allow economic decisions that favor our best interests, overall lowest real costs and the greatest benefit for all. In a truly free market, why would it be anything else? Change can be difficult to accept but the illusion of unlimited cheap fossil fuels is beginning to fade.
The best solution I’ve seen to bring honesty to the energy economy has been offered by Dr. James Hansen, one of our nation’s top climate scientists. It is called Fee and Dividend.
We begin paying a more truthful price for carbon, implementing an across-the-board flat fee on all fossil fuels at the point of entry in the market (domestic mine or port of entry). A rising rate of $10 per ton of CO2 per year will yield a 30% reduction in U.S. emissions (the equivalent of 13 Keystone XL pipelines). That’s the fee part.
In ten years, this would be the equivalent of one dollar per gallon of gasoline. Now for the dividend: 100% of the collected carbon fees are distributed to the public electronically to bank accounts or debit cards. By year ten, the fees collected from fossil fuel companies would exceed $500 billion per year, providing $2,000 to $3,000 per legal adult resident in the country, offsetting the higher costs of goods and services resulting from the fee.
There no strings attached so people are free to decide how to spend it. For those driving large SUVs the dividend would offset the rising cost of their carbon consumption. However, many others will choose to invest that dividend in energy efficiency for homes, appliances or vehicles. Those with the most efficient carbon budget reap the greatest rewards.
This simple approach does not grow government, is revenue-neutral and makes use of market principles. There are no new taxes and the government does not attempt to pick winners via tax breaks. It is transparent and leaves energy decisions in the hands of the people. Businesses (including energy companies) who choose to innovate by reducing their carbon footprint will gain a competitive advantage.
We are all responsible for the results we create. I echo the words of an eloquent young man who spoke recently at the White House demonstrations: “We can set a standard for everybody else to follow. Today we act. We are taking back our future.”