A couple of years ago, Al Gore made the case, in a film called An Inconvenient Truth, that we have a big problem called global warming. But the film was not effective at pointing to a solution. Humans evolved to consider a crisis as a challenge, as long as a solution is readily available. Otherwise, panic or resignation sets in.
Now, Gore has moved a significant step further by arguing that all sources of electricity should be carbon-free — in other words, all of our electricity should be generated using wind, solar, or geothermal power, instead of coal, natural gas, or oil.
The next step should be to explain how we move to a fossil fuel-free electrical system. Gore continues to advocate a revenue-neutral carbon tax, but it feels like he’s searching for something else, something that would be part of the effort to clean up the energy system.
He might consider the idea that rebuilding the manufacturing economy by building solar and wind equipment would not only lead to a carbon-free system, but also would revive the national economy and the middle class.
This line of argument would solve two problems at the same time: How to build the necessary infrastructure, and how to explain that doing so will lead to economic growth, not to huge costs. As anyone who saw his interview on Meet the Press will attest, the conventional wisdom seems to be that greening the economy will be costly. This, while an economy built on the assumption of cheap oil heads for a major depression as the inevitable takes place — cheap oil becomes expensive oil.
In other words, we — and I don’t mean just the campaign — need to explain that preventing the worst of global warming is the solution to our current economic problems. Gore already laid down a great line:
When we send money to foreign countries to buy nearly 70 percent of the oil we use every day, they build new skyscrapers and we lose jobs. When we spend that money building solar arrays and windmills, we build competitive industries and gain jobs here at home.
So building solar and wind-based electrical systems can reverse the decline of the middle class. If you argue that manufacturing is the foundation of a wealthy economy, you challenge the myth that we don’t need manufacturing. Wind and solar energy are completely dependent on manufacturing competence, whereas fossil fuel energy is dependent on political power over a piece of territory.
By emphasizing the manufacturing capability to produce solar and wind machinery, Gore can lay down the vision for a set of policies that can lead to full employment, that is, virtually anyone who wants a good job can get a good job. That set of policies would encompass, according to Gar Lipow’s formulation, the three legs of a carbon-free policy system: Carbon pricing, regulation, and public investment. All could be directed toward the expansion of domestic firms and domestic jobs, solving our biggest environmental and economic problems at the same time.
If we continue to use fossil fuels, we will destroy the possibility for economic growth; if we construct a carbon-free economy, we will solve the economic crisis by solving the climate crisis.