Three faces of hope for climate change
Last week in Congress, I met with three people who represent the three imperatives of our efforts against global warming. One represents the morality of the endeavor, another who received the Nobel Prize represents the science behind the economics, and the third is a well known gym rat who represents the way our democracy will answer the call. All three of them share one important trait — they are all allies in the race to save the planet from the scourge of climate change.
That the Dalai Lama is an important voice in the climate change debate might strike some as surprising. After all, he has his hands full trying to protect the religious liberty of the Tibetan people. But in our meeting with him and Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the Capitol, he made it abundantly clear that he considers climate change a mortal threat to his people as well as to all of the one and a half billion people who depend upon the rivers flowing from the threatened glaciers of the Himalayas.
His depiction of the already dry Tibetan plateau made it clear why the increasing desertification and loss of glacier mass are without question a scientifically proven problem demanding an international response. The Dalai Lama is more than a spiritual leader, he is a man who esteems science, and he told us the science of this is clear to him. It was perhaps a coincidence that the week the Dalai Lama came to Washington, D.C. with his message about the science of climate change, several major American corporations quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of its refusal to recognize the scientific urgency of responding to this threat.
Why is it that a humble man wrapped in saffron robes living at the foot of the Himalayas gets it when so many allegedly technologically advanced corporate leaders do not? Fortunately, a large number of American business leaders are demanding action at an accelerating rate, and are willing to say goodbye to the retrograde forces of denial to make their point.
Just down the street from the Capitol, I met another leader who won the Nobel prize in physics. Dr. Steven Chu is leading a revamped and rejuvenated Department of Energy in its efforts to jump-start the U.S. economy with a burst of clean energy innovation. What he was doing theoretically to win the Nobel Prize, he is now doing practically by pumping out several billion dollars a month in loan guarantees and grants to help new business get on their feet in the biggest, boldest, most productive economic opportunity on our horizon — the clean energy revolution.
Secretary Chu revealed that what made him willing to leave the comforts of academia to jump into the Capitol fray was the obvious need to save the planet from climate change. But now that he is in the post, he has taken to the task of building jobs and economic growth with a full recognition of another threat, that of the possibility that China will seize the initiative and come to dominate the world’s market in providing clean energy technologies. Over lunch he emphasized his concern that China’s investment of about $12 million a minute will allow it to gain an insurmountable lead over us in building new clean energy industries here.
Secretary Chu made a statement that might stun many Americans. He believes China has passed America in the field of high-tech manufacturing, not low-cost manufacturing. His statement revealed a new truth. We have historically feared the ability of China to beat us due to their low-wage rates. That fear now properly should be replaced by a concern about its ability to dominate high-tech manufacturing.
But Secretary Chu has an answer to that gloomy prospect: America can become a major provider to the world of clean energy products and services, if we play our cards right.
Now he is our ally in the great race to develop and deploy high-tech, clean energy technologies so that we can fulfill America’s destiny to be the arsenal of clean energy to the world, just as we were the arsenal of democracy during World War II. It is a thrill to see the billions of dollars of investment that his department is now helping to promote, using the stimulus funds we provided in Congress, because this is the real-world application of the ideas we have promoted in our book Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy. What were developing ideas and dreams in Apollo’s Fire are now becoming hard realities.
The next day, I had the good fortune to meet another leader, this one a noted gym rat, a devotee of the game of basketball, who asked a me and few other congressmen to come over and play a few games of basketball at the former tennis court he had made over into hoops court at the White House. He was to be named the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize the next day, but that day President Barack Obama was most notable for his crossover dribble.
That move of his would surprise many for its effectiveness and his ability to get to the hoop and score. In this way his basketball game is just like his strategy on clean energy legislation — his forthcoming score is going to surprise a lot of people. Until we passed our energy bill in the House, most said it couldn’t be done. Now they are saying we cannot get a bill out of the Senate. Those folks are wrong, just like the folks were wrong who might have thought that Obama is too skinny to go to the hoop in traffic.
The dynamic is in our direction. All the relevant pressures are breaking our way. The resignations from the Chamber of Commerce, the increasingly clear science, the signs of bipartisanship emerging in the Senate, the increasingly clear picture that we need a new horizon for job creation to pull us out of the recession, the emergence of clean energy leadership in the business community from Detroit in electric autos, to the southwest in solar thermal technologies, to the Midwest in a host of new manufacturing opportunities, all point to a real chance for success this congress.
And don’t you think that the belated realization that if Congress does not act with a scalpel, the EPA will act with a cudgel, has finally brought the sudden sense of revelation in many parts of the industrial community that they had better get in to the game instead of denying it exists?
This story about the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, and a presidential gym rat may sound like the set up of a pedestrian joke, but it represents a troika of forces that are on the cusp of the greatest industrial revolution yet. The Dalai Lama represents the morality of the necessity of change, the physicist represents the economic and scientific necessity of change, and the presidential gym rat represents the political possibility of a clean energy revolution. Together those three men I met last week are the embodiment of hope.
Victory is within our reach and they will help us find a way to seize it.