A few weeks ago, one of the presidential candidates’ advisors challenged a group of climate leaders to describe America’s future. His challenge triggered a flurry of e-mails as we attempted to articulate a vision.
We talked about carbon caps and price signals and new investments in R&D. That’s fine, the advisor responded, but what it the vision? What is America’s perfect future?
I’m not sure we ever satisfactorily answered this very good question, but I found myself trying to describe what America might look like 10, 20, and 40 years from now.
2010: As the first decade of the 21st century came to a close, the American people turned a historic corner. The growing number of droughts, wildfires, violent storms and other problems persuaded even the deniers that we were experiencing the first dangerous symptoms of global warming. Resource conflicts were growing worldwide as developing and developed nations competed for oil and other finite resources. Now, in wry acknowledgment of the world’s deteriorating condition, a song recorded by the Kingston Trio 50 years ago — “The Merry Minuet” — has climbed to the top of the charts again. Voters are demanding that the president and Congress chart a new course in which economic and ecological security are recognized as interconnected, and continued reliance on nuclear and fossil fuels are regarded as “threat multipliers” for national security.
2020: America’s transition to a clean energy economy is well underway. More than 20 percent of the nation’s electricity now is generated from renewable resources. Due to breakthrough technologies and pressure from Washington, the passenger vehicle fleet averages 50 miles per gallon, on the way to a goal of 200 mpg by mid-century. America has reduced its oil consumption by half and no longer imports petroleum from the Persian Gulf. Because conventional coal-fired power plants were banned 10 years ago, urban air quality and public health — particularly asthma in children — have improved dramatically. Americans have reduced their per capita carbon emissions by half, and greenhouse-gas emissions nationwide have declined 30 percent from their 2010 level.
Everyone now regards energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies as tools of national security. Photovoltaic panels are as critical as M-16s; plug-in hybrids are as important as Hummers. International defense organizations like NATO have become international climate-action collaborations.
On the international scene, the United States has led the development of a “grand deal” in which wealthy nations no longer subsidize fossil energy projects in developing countries — a practice that was motivated by not by altruism but by the desire of rich nations to gain access to energy resources in poorer nation (PDF). Today, international loans and trade policies support energy efficiency and diversified, decentralized renewable energy systems to raise quality of life with simple, decentralized renewable technologies that have democratized energy production.
After the ugly deterioration of its international reputation in the first decade of the century, the United States has earned back enormous good will for using its wealth and talent to help the people of all nations attain decent living standards. Foreign aid for clean energy and water projects is far bigger business than weapons sales. The United States has joined an international “race to the bottom” — i.e., a competition to become virtually carbon-free economies. Terrorist organizations, starved for sanctuary, money and recruits, will not attack the United States, which is regarded as the leading global force for dignity, health and prosperity for the world’s poorest people.
Young people are required to give at least two years to some type of national service in the United States or overseas, and they do so enthusiastically. They are helping communities adapt to climate change, teaching in inner-city schools, setting up emergency response systems, helping build clean energy systems in developing communities. In exchange, the federal government, in partnership with private philanthropies, grants graduates of the program funds for college tuition, home ownership, vocational training, or small business creation.
2030: Rural farms and communities are enjoying unprecedented wealth as the nation’s primary energy suppliers. America has grown, rather than drilled, its way out of energy insecurity. Farms are growing food, fiber, and fuels; practicing conservation tillage to see carbon offsets by keeping carbon sequestered in the soil; and managing forests for carbon sequestration. Solar and wind farms dot the countryside. Bio-refineries are common in rural communities, providing high-quality jobs that have increased the rural tax base and reversed the out-migration of youth.
Every new building in America is properly sized for its use and is carbon and energy neutral. A state-of-the-art high-speed rail system provides an attractive alternative to air travel between America’s major metropolitan areas (lost luggage and airport security lines are, for most us, a thing of the past), and safe and convenient mass transit has virtually eliminated traffic congestion in cities. Urban sprawl has been stopped.
Personal vehicles, insofar as people still own them, are powered by electricity and are recharged by distributed solar panels on top of carports and garages. Many are rolling power plants that produce almost as much energy as they consume. Green industries are serving the enormous world market for ecologically-sound development and have become America’s most important job engine. Not all is perfect. Our communities, farms, forests, water supplies, and public health have been feeling the growing impacts of climate change caused by greenhouse-gas emissions caused decades ago. There have been droughts, wildfires, floods, severe weather, public health challenges. But for the most part, Americans are learning to adapt (PDF).
2050: Our cities are composed of compact “urban villages”, each a community in its own right with schools, churches, libraries, stores, and other necessary services within a 15-minute walk. Roofs, roads and other paved surfaces are light in color to reduce the “urban heat island” effect. Parks and green spaces are sprinkled throughout the urban villages, further reducing the need for cooling and providing people with places to enjoy natural beauty. Public transit has become so safe, efficient, and appealing that few urban residents own cars. America no longer imports any petroleum and uses virtually no oil. Coal mining stopped long ago, as coal-fired electricity grew more expensive than power from sunlight, wind, and geothermal sources. Price spikes, supply disruptions, air pollution, mercury pollution, Middle Eastern wars, high trade imbalances, perverse foreign policies, and “resource wars” are memories. No one asks why we’re not using fossil energy any more. Instead, we ask why we didn’t stop much sooner.
Motivated by astronomical insurance rates, communities have moved out of disaster-prone areas along rivers and coasts. Those areas now are public access beaches, nature preserves and recreational sites. Levees, dams and other “disaster control” structures have fallen into disfavor because they failed under the increasing pressures of severe weather attributed to global warming. Instead, regions have restored wetlands, replanted watersheds and put the meander back into rivers — in other words, big structures named after Congressmen have given way to natural systems to prevent disasters.
The classic American example of communicating a vision of the future is, of course, the New York World’s Fair of 1939, “Building the World of Tomorrow.”
That vision, in the words of the University of Virginia American Studies program, “promoted one of the last great metanarratives of the Machine Age: the unqualified belief in science and technology as a means to economic prosperity and personal freedom.
“Wedged between the greatest economic disaster in America and the growing international tension that would result in World War II, The World of Tomorrow was a much-needed antidote to the depression and confusion of the times. It provided the one saving grace which all of America needed — it provided hope.”
The 2008 election is not the World’s Fair. But it is a venue in which we should be talking about our national vision — an antidote to the disturbing pictures that have emerged from climate science and from those parts of the world already experiencing the effects of global warming.