Times that Try Men’s Souls, but Shouldn’t

The case can be made that all times are times that try men’s souls. Thomas Paine saw the revolutionary period in America as a particularly noteworthy — or quote-worthy — example of the effect, but we think a competent historian could label any period as a trying time for some, if not all, of a population.

Of course, compared to what we’ve been through in the last year in the name of renewable energy, we feel churlish in considering this politically transitional period as “trying.” The candidate who described the most forward-looking and comprehensive renewable energy plan is the one who will move into the White House in January, a change of address that will encourage most clean energy advocates. And his holding fast to that plan throughout the primary and general election seasons gives us reason to hope that his positions were true positions, not just seines for catching and releasing environmental voters.

But if this transitional time is trying for the souls of clean energy men (and women) it’s because, as the President-elect builds up his administration and prioritizes his 2009 agenda, we’re seeing programs like health care, education and energy competing for attention not only with each other, as is usual, but also with the reality of an economy in real trouble.

The question that is most being asked these days, it seems, concerns how much President-elect Obama’s ideas will have to be delayed, modified, rearranged or reprioritized while we climb out of the financial hole we dug for ourselves. At the best of times it’s tough to convince average citizens that energy and the environment are at least as important to get right as those issues closer to their understanding; now, with ghosts of the Great Depression being routinely conjured by pundits, the economy’s convalescence has become the only issue for many.

For sure, those plans of Obama’s that affect solar and other forms of clean energy development will demand a large slice of the economic pie:

  • $150 billion of government investment in clean energy,

  • Revolutionizing the electricity grid with an efficient interstate transmission system,

  • A national renewable portfolio standard (RPS) of 10% by 2012 and 25% by 2025,

  • A national cap-and-trade law to curb GHG emissions.

So given the currently crumbling condition of that pie, can we expect the new President to defer these ambitious plans to a ‘safer’ time? John Podesta, co-chairman of the transition team, thinks not.

“I anticipate him moving very aggressively and very rapidly,” Podesta has said, “and to make the right kinds of investments, which I think will again serve the three goals of dealing with the security challenge of our oil dependency, of our environmental challenge… and the economic challenge of creating new investment, new innovation, putting people back to work and getting the economy moving again.”

While we — those of us who closely follow the renewables debate — are familiar with the promise of a green-powered society creating new industries, new jobs and new income, just as the IT revolution did a couple of decades ago, that news doesn’t seem to have leaked out onto the street yet. For some, renewable energy is in the nature of an optional add-on feature, like a belt-attached cell phone holster; for others, it’s a necessary evil that had better not cost more for gas than they’re paying now or they’ll have no part of it.

Yet others understand that the days of unrealistically cheap energy are behind us, and simply hope that politicians are able to keep self-interest out of the solution they formulate. And enough citizens are sufficiently distracted by the nightmares within nightmares of a ravaged economy, job uncertainty and volatile fuel prices to be unreceptive to the message that heavy investment in renewables now may address several problems at once.

According to Podesta’s remarks, however, the President-elect appears to understand that the best form of defense is attack. And if he really does interpret clean energy adoption in terms of rehabilitating the economy with job development and business opportunities, improving national security by reducing our dependence on foreign suppliers of oil, and mitigating global warming by reducing our overall use of oil and other GHG sources, then he is ahead of the curve that most of the rest of us are on. If the information coming out of the Transition Office is to be believed, he understands that it’s not a question of waiting till the economy improves before getting down and green, but improving the economy by getting green first — and fast.

There will be many constituencies to whom Obama will have to sell his plan, in whatever final form it takes. One of those constituencies will be the U.S. Congress, and here he seems to have already anticipated a possible roadblock. The 110th Congress was a case study for political junkies on how the best intentions of elected officials can be drowned in a sea of lobbyist dollars, and we can be sure that the same dynamic will be in evidence with the 111th.

But the President-elect left nobody in doubt in his campaign speeches that lobbyists would have less influence under his Administration; the extent to which he can effect that change at the Congressional level will be a strong determinant of the effectiveness of the whole Government apparatus during his tenure.

The other major constituency is, of course, the American people. As we noted above, the long-term imperatives of energy and the environment don’t engage the average citizen’s attention or understanding the way jobs, healthcare and the cost of living do.

So the lesson for the new Administration, if it is to gather and build popular support for its plan, will be to present it not as a new energy scheme that will start us on a forty-year path to sustainability but as the most promising begetter of economy-wide jobs that will materialize quickly and will endure, helping to turn the economy around. Both descriptions are true, but the latter is the one that will resonate more with the well-tried souls of Americans today.

And January 20th would not be a day too soon to make it happen.

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