It’s the One Issue We Must Get Right

President-elect Obama appears to be conducting his transitional organization in much the way he promised in many months of election rhetoric; that is, he is making an effort to collect the opinions, visions and ideas of ordinary people, presumably to keep his team’s finger constantly on the pulse of everyday Americans.

And this is where you can step right up and make your own suggestions on renewable energy to the Obama-Biden office. Click here to do so.

I’m wondering how clean energy issues are faring in this intake of hopes, fears and observations. For while Obama maintained his emphasis on renewable energy development throughout the campaign and after it, I know that energy/environmental issues don’t resonate with the average voter outside the energy field the way issues such as health care and the economy do; so it’s likely that the bulk of the input received by the transitional team is concerned with these latter issues.

A recent survey conducted by change.org (a social entrepreneurship venture not connected in any way with change.gov, the Obama-Biden organization) suggests that this very well may be the case: of the issues addressed by respondents as most needing the next Administration’s attention, energy brought up a very distant rear. This also echoes the kind of responses recorded by polling companies in the run-up to the election; a person might state that energy and the environment were important to them, but when asked to prioritize their personal issues they would demote them well below issues that felt more tangible and immediate.

Yes, when you compare and contrast losing your job or having medical problems you can’t afford to treat with the less easily understood imperatives of global warming mitigation and energy security, it’s an understandable response. But while understandable, the danger is that the public feedback the transitional team receives really does skew the agenda and priorities of the next president away from energy issues.

And That Would Be Bad Because…?

That would be bad because there’s only one issue that legislators absolutely have to get right now and in the years ahead.

It’s not illegal immigration. Whichever approach Congress and the president take to the problem will alleviate some aspects of it and aggravate others, and we will survive.

It’s not healthcare. The Obama-Biden plan for affordable, accessible health care should improve our abysmal healthcare system. It won’t be perfect, but even one that involved applying leeches would improve what we have. We will survive.

It’s not terrorism. We’re surviving now under a president determined to make the U.S. a piñata for terrorist groups around the globe. A more enlightened foreign policy that does not start with the patter song ‘our god’s better than your god’ will help more than a dozen troop surges. We will survive.

It’s not education. Our next president, to judge from his literature, will work on reform, resources and accountability; it would be nice if we could get all three, but even if not, we will survive.

It’s not even the economy. Money rarely disappears from an economy, assuming it-and not just the promise of money-was there in the first place. It gets moved around and converted into other forms, and losers become winners and vice-versa. Obama’s plan addresses both short-term relief and systemic corrections to the financial system; it will doubtless pave a bumpy road back to economic health, and many of us will finish the journey bruised, but we will survive.

No, the one issue we absolutely must get right-not half or three-quarters right, in true Washington tradition, but completely right-is the one that concerns the impact of energy use on the environment and how we alleviate it. Because if we get that just a little wrong, we can’t end with the phrase “we will survive.”

However we as a nation and a planet choose to do it, we must reduce GHG emissions to the levels strongly recommended by international scientific panels. With our knowledge of the medieval warming period and the interglacial cycle, we can still only say that this will limit the effects of climate change to the disastrous rather than the annihilative, but the difference between these outcomes determines the survival of nations, races and species.

And it’s at this point that one of the weaknesses of our largely laudable American system of government shows itself. We’ve always taken it as a point of pride, and an indicator of the strength of our democracy, that administrations and congresses more often than not have to accept compromises to get legislation passed.

This frequently results in laws written to conciliate those lawmakers whose districts might be disproportionately affected by a new law, and to satisfy-or mostly satisfy-the largely moderate body of opinion in America.

But tackling global warming effectively, as I’ve indicated, is not a task that lends itself to dilution by compromise. If cap-and-trade bills are weakened to placate senators in debt to power industry interests and win their votes, if tax breaks and subsidies that could be shifted from the oil & gas sector to strengthen alternative energy are left in place for similar reasons, if automakers are allowed to write their own leisurely timetable for creating fuel-efficient cars as their price for supporting local congresspersons, then the laws we pass will fall far short of the minimum the climate needs.

So there’s much that we look for in the year of the clean electron. We look for the incoming Administration to trust to its own counsel when prioritizing its agenda. We look for the 111th Congress to act as a body representing the whole nation, and by extension of influence the world, rather than as a collection of parochial representatives. And, perhaps most optimistically of all, we look for the American people to educate themselves sufficiently in the realities of what Thomas Friedman calls the “Energy-Climate Era” that they actually support well-written and far-reaching climate legislation, whether or not it finds favor with their Congressional delegation.

And so, with all this in mind, if you would like to make your own suggestions on renewable energy to the Obama-Biden office, please visit the change.gov website and tell the incoming administration what you think.

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