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Think Globally, Act: A Vote for Obama is a Vote for Earth

We are at an historic crossroads.  Any environmental expert will tell you that if we do not reverse the trend of our carbon emissions within 15 years, we risk doing irreparable damage to our planet.   Given that it will take … Read More

By / October 8, 2008

We are at an historic crossroads.  Any environmental expert will tell you that if we do not reverse the trend of our carbon emissions within 15 years, we risk doing irreparable damage to our planet.   Given that it will take 10 years for any substantive change to come to fruition, the man who occupies the oval office for the next two terms is in the unique position to leave behind an undeniable environmental legacy.  Fifty years from now this coming administration will be viewed either as environmental heroes, or catastrophic failures.  From a global environmental perspective, November 2nd 2008 may be remembered as the most important day in the history of the planet. When I first conceived this article, it was my intention to put aside my liberal bias and write an objective analysis of the two presidential candidates’ environmental platforms.  That was until I had the unfortunate displeasure of reading McCain’s Lexington Project. It is important to understand that there is no surefire solution to the energy crisis.  Like any stock portfolio, the key to success is diversification.  Both campaigns have a grasp on this concept, with neither betting the future on any one specific technology or policy and both proposing an immediate price on carbon emissions.  Given the uncertainty of the industry, it is difficult to suggest that either candidate will provide the indisputable solution to the energy crisis. That being said, the Obama team has gone the furthest in illustrating the inextricable connection between the environment and the economy.  The comprehensive 11 page proposal coming out of the Obama camp provides calculated actions the government can take to alleviate our dependence on foreign oil without pillaging our countries natural resources, all while creating five million new “green collar” jobs.  McCain, on the other hand, seems like he asked some kid in the halls of an elementary school for help with his proposal.  I suggest you read it next time you are in an elevator, stopped at a red light, or waiting for your Facebook page to refresh.   Included in the flimsy two and a half page proposal is the implication that one solution to our transportation energy crisis is offering “A $300 million prize to improve battery technology for full commercial development of plug-in hybrid and fully electric automobiles.”  This type of suggestion comes from a man who either A) hasn’t thought critically about a viable solution to the energy crisis or B) wants to sound like he’s making an effort without jeopardizing his relationship with Big Oil.  This proposal is like telling a poor, inner city youth that if he goes to college and gets his degree he’ll be guaranteed a $30,000 a year job when he graduates, but neglecting to provide him with scholarships, loans, or any other financial support for his education. Offering a $300 million dollar “prize” brazenly ignores the most difficult challenge to the renewable energy movement: capital investment.  There is little doubt that the transition to a green economy cannot happen without an open dialogue between policymakers, laborers, and the private sector.  The Cleantech Group recently brought together 500 of the most influential cleantech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists at the Cleantech Forum in Washington DC.  Jason Grumet, Obama’s lead energy and environmental advisor was on hand for a riveting panel discussion.  His presence was as much to provide industry trendsetters with an overview of Obama’s policy strategies as it was to gain feedback from the men and women who will be shaping the industry in the private sector.   What was missing from this panel was any representation from the McCain camp (despite a personal invitation), an abscence as glaring as the one in the lower Manhattan skyline.  Somehow the only person from the republican camp who could find the time to attend the preeminent North American cleantech conference, which was in Washington DC, was Hank Habicht, energy representative to the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations.  Mr. Habicht likened his experience in that role to “a javelin team captain who had been elected to receive.” The problem, or at least one of them, is infrastructural, and that road begins in Washington and ends in Detroit.  Many people forget that the success of the American automobile industry could not have been made possible without the infrastructural foundation built by the American government.  Without roads, nobody would buy cars.  Similarly, without direct government investment in a clean energy economy, supported by policy that alleviates some of the challenges stemming from the capitally intensive nature of the technology, we are stuck in a “chicken or the egg” scenario.
John McCain points out that American automakers have committed to shift their product lines to 50% Flex Fuel vehicles by 2012. His plan “calls on automakers to make a more rapid and complete switch to FFVs.”  There is no mention of what policies he will enact to do this, what types of financial support the government will give to assist with the necessary capital investment, who will train these workers to manufacture these new technologies, or most importantly, where these new cars will be filling their tanks.  McCain does offer some back end incentives in the form of a $5,000 credit to automakers for each zero emission car sold, but without significant investment in R&D or definitive distribution channels for alternative fuel, I don’t see many of these credits being issued.  Furthermore, the jump from current emissions to zero emissions is quite optimistic, and one wonders if he is aware that FFV fuels, while they do drastically cut emissions, are not in fact carbon neutral. Obama proposes a “strategic investment of $150 billion over 10 years to accelerate the commercialization of plug?in hybrids, promote development of commercial scale renewable energy, encourage energy efficiency, invest in low emissions coal plants, advance the next generation of biofuels and fuel infrastructure… [and invest in] America’s highly?skilled manufacturing workforce and manufacturing centers to ensure that American workers have the skills and tools they need to pioneer the green technologies that will be in high demand throughout the world.”   Beyond financial and political investment in infrastructure, the next administration must focus on policy that drives demand.  American car manufacturers have made amazing leaps in technology over the past fifty years, but almost all of that innovation has been in the realm of maximizing engine power; had these breakthroughs been made in the realm of maximizing efficiency, chances are we’d all be driving 150 MPG vehicles.   No one can blame Ford or GM for focusing on projects like the Mustang or the Corvette decades before the word green implied anything other than a color.  R&D budgetary expenditures and output objectives from the 50’s through the 80’s were based on consumer preferences.  People wanted big, powerful cars, and Detroit was happy to help.  In the last few years the skyrocketing price of oil has created a new, indisputable era of automobile demand, but there is still room for policy to help drive consumer preferences.   Obama is offering a $7,000 tax credit to consumers for the purchase of advanced technology vehicles, as well as a credit to subsidize clean engine conversions.  His plan also establishes a guaranteed initial revenue stream to American automakers by enacting a one year plan to convert the entire White House fleet to plug in hybrids, and half of all government vehicles to plug-in hybrid or 100% electric by 2012.  I’ve sent McCain my Economics 101 notes on supply and demand.  I’ll let you know if I hear anything.   While this article has focused on infrastructure and auto transportation solutions, the complexity of environmental policy is so vast that it cannot conceivably be summed up within the confines of this column.  We need decisive action across the board on energy efficiency, smart grids, sustainable communities, green building, utility energy mix incentives, wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, geosolar, cogeneration, waste management, waste energy, carbon pricing, clean coal, natural gas, maximizing efficiency from conventional energy, domestic drilling, foreign oil policy, biofuels, flex fuels, electric cars, green collar training, greenhouse gas emissions, cap and trade, water management, energy speculation, short term energy pricing relief, and more.  I encourage you to read both plans, and make an educated decision for yourselves.   McCain – Palin: The Lexington Project

Obama – Biden: New Energy For America

Jason Grumet, lead energy and environmental advisor to Barack Obama, knows that the shift to a green economy cannot be done alone.  “The American people need to communicate the value of job creation.  Obama has said that he can create 5 million jobs, but 5 million is a crazy big number.  Write a letter to the editor, or to local policymakers, explaining how we can create 14 jobs.”   For years a loud minority has been scraping and clawing to build out the cleantech education strategy at Babson College.  In the past three years that loud minority has grown to a deafening majority, and within the last year alone the school has added an Environmental Entrepreneurship class, a Green Consulting program, and created a Cleantech Entrepreneur in Residence position on the Board of Overseers.  These successes in cleantech management education need to partnered with commitments by trade schools, community colleges, and even private sector manufacturing organizations to develop the skilled green collar labor force that will be the foundation of our new economy. Obama’s roots are in community organizing; with him and his 500 person energy staff working from the top down, and everyone else working up from the bottom, hopefully we can meet somewhere in the middle, at the crossroads of economy and ecology.

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