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Bill Clinton at Natl. Clean Energy Summit (Photo courtesy of CleanSkies)

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Speaking in Las Vegas on Monday, former President Bill Clinton challenged Americans to change how the energy/climate debate has been framed by extremists on the right.

The debate so far has been dominated by a need to prove that:

1) Global warming is real.
2) Global warming is caused by human activity.
3) Global warming is bad.
4) Measures to stop global warming won’t destroy our economy and way of life.

In other words, supporters of the energy status quo and their loony mercenary mobs have rational people playing defense at every turn. That framework is reason #1 why the wimpy Waxman-Markey bill barely squeaked by in the House.

In a single phrase, uttered six minutes into his remarks and repeated throughout his one-hour address, Clinton supplied the winning frame for progress on a host of interconnected issues, including global warming, a tanking economy (particularly noticeable in a massive loss of jobs), and a series of disastrous oil wars.

Clinton’s new frame was: “We are still piddling with this.” And by this he clearly meant all of these interconnected issues of jobs, energy, the environment.

Now, I don’t expect to see signs going up across the nation proclaiming, “No more piddling!” But it’s just the kind of phrasing that connects with a huge number of “ordinary” Americans.

Clinton, whose mojo was always about connecting heart and head (or sense and sensibility), went on to discuss in the pure wonk language of numbers, the challenges facing us and the benefits of specific actions. But he always tagged up with a variation of the “piddling” theme.


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Low-hanging fruit

Clinton said we need to focus policy – and money – on the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency. Retrofitting older building to make them energy efficient, for example, would provide the most bang for the buck, in terms of lowering GHG emissions and in job growth. Constructing a new coal-fired power plant generates 870 jobs for every $1 billion invested, said Clinton. The same money used to make existing buildings energy efficient would create 6,000 jobs.

A report issued on Monday by the Center for American Progress (a host of the summit), underscored Clinton’s message. According to the study, 40 percent of GHG emissions comes from energy used in building. “Deep building retrofits can cut energy use by 20 to 40 percent with proven techniques and off-the-shelf technologies,” the report continued. “Best of all, they can pay for themselves from the energy they save.”

The report recommends a $500 billion public-private investment to retrofit forty percent of our existing building stock by the year 2020. Such a program would, according to the study, employ over a half million workers and save consumers $32 billion to $64 billion annually in reduced energy costs.

For at least part of that money, Clinton advocated creating a program along the lines of the Small Business Administration. Banks, which Clinton said are sitting on $900 billion that could be available for loans, should be encouraged to make that money available for energy efficiency by government backing of the loans.

“You’ve got to get the banks involved,” he said, “if you’re going to stop piddling around.”

Sec. of Energy Steven ChuSec. of Energy Steven Chu

In a small press conference earlier in the day, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu had called energy efficiency “the fruit on the ground” ready to be picked up, even more accessible than “low-hanging” fruit.

The Green Bank

Clinton’s idea is in addition to a so-called Green Bank which was mentioned throughout the day as another avenue routing funding for a new energy economy. One plan for a Green Bank claims that at a funding level of $50 billion, it could:

·    Generate enough clean electricity to power 22.9 million cars a year.
·    Decrease gasoline consumption by 12.6 billion gallons a year.
·    Decrease oil consumption by 642 million barrels a year.

Former oilman turned wind baron turned natural gas proponent T. Boone Pickens, offered another idea:

Mandate that all diesel fleet vehicles including 18-wheel trucks be run on natural gas. Pickens pointed out that natural gas is far less polluting than diesel fuel and that it could provide a bridge to an all clean electric transportation society. Former Vice President Al Gore agreed with Pickens that electric battery technology is not yet ready to replace diesel engines and supported the idea of switching to natural gas.

Such a costly conversion program may be unnecessary, however, even in the short run, after last week’s announcement that the DOE was releasing $2.4 billion to develop electric cars (EVs) and an EV charging infrastructure. $1.5 billion targets improvements in battery technology.

Another Clinton idea is to take the best part of the Cash for Clunkers program and adapt it for EVs. Providing buyers of new EVs with a $10,000 incentive, could, he said, put more clean cars on the road and drive the industry which is still gearing up, to get more efficient, better-designed EVs to market sooner.

The day-long event produced many other ideas for moving to a clean energy economy, creating jobs and making the US the world leader in cutting GHG emissions.

These include:

  • Funding community colleges to train workers (from all backgrounds) in new technology jobs.
  • Doing more to create a national smart grid that can efficiently handle power generated from new sources.
  • Sensible deregulation to allow energy efficient and environmentally sound project to scale up more quickly.
  • Open public land in the Southwest to development of large scale solar power facilities.

I cringed when I heard that last goal. Not because I disagree with its premise. I’m a proponent of solar power, including the large-scale form known as Concentrating Solar Power (CSP). It was the language used at the summit that had me thinking, “here we go again.”

One speaker used the phrase “unlimited potential” to describe the desert’s use for electric power generation. In discussions about natural resources, “unlimited” has typically meant only that the speaker refuses to recognize limits and abide by them until what was once unlimited is destroyed. Then it’s time to move on to the next new thing with “unlimited potential.”

John Podesta, Center for American Progress (Photo by OGD)John Podesta, Center for American Progress (Photo by OGD)

After a final press conference, I told John Podesta, head of the Center for American Progress, about my concerns and he did his best to reassure me that “they all” understood the environmental values of the Southwestern deserts. “Look,” he said, “in the Clinton administration [where Podesta was Chief of Staff] we preserved more desert lands than any previous administration. We can do CSP in the desert in a thoughtful, environmental way.”

The day ended in the late afternoon on an upbeat note. I overheard one woman leaving the area say to her companion, “I learned so much; I just don’t want to forget it!”

That enthusiasm is important. A large part of the summit was designed to get momentum rolling for passage of a Senate clean energy bill that does not “just piddle around.” That actually improves the House bill.

The only way that can happen is if proponents seize the Clinton frame and get the questions back on track. If the national discussion (or shouting match in recent days) remains fixed on defending the extent and culpability of global warming, we all lose. What we need now, coming out of the summit, is a nation asking its elected officials “When, in God’s name, are you going to stop piddling around on issues that decide whether or not I have a job, about my ability to provide for my family, my kids’ future, our national security, and a changing climate that could devastate large regions of America, and the world?”

And the answer better be: “Now.”

L-to-R, T. Boone Pickes, Senator Harry Reid, John Podesta (OGD)L-to-R, T. Boone Pickes, Senator Harry Reid, John Podesta (OGD)

Final thoughts:

One of the most striking features of yesterday’s clean energy summit was the successful combination of two seemingly opposing worlds. There were lengthy exchanges about the nittiest and grittiest details of energy policy (new standards to prevent air leakage in ductwork, for example).

It should have been boring. It wasn’t.

The audience was intrigued and engaged and even, at times, euphoric. The summit was like an old timey tent revival meeting — but for clean energy wonks. True, the panelists were wonks. The audience, however, seemed pretty normal (by Las Vegas standards, of course). The exchanges became so technically detailed yet fervent at points that I thought some panel members had begun speaking in tongues.

Why is this important? Because progressives have such a bodaciously miserable record in this regard.

Major policy shifts live or die based largely on the passions of the day. And a major policy shift is definitely what’s called for when you are faced with a rapidly heating planet, a crumbling energy infrastructure and an economy that sucks like a Hoover (in either sense of the name).

Republican leaders and the fossil fool industries understand this all too well. They spend millions to gin up the fear factor on behalf of the status quo. They’re playing with fire and they know it. But they don’t care.

The progressive challenge is to stir passions for positive change without resorting to lies, demagoguery or forgery. The National Clean Energy Summit may have been an historic advance in that mission.

The task now is to spread those ideas—and those passions—to a much larger audience.

Slot Machine, hotel lobby, 2009Slot Machine, hotel lobby, 2009

One favorite remark from the summit provoked lots of laughs from the audience (me included). But it was also one of the most open, honest and significant unscripted observations made at the gathering.

During a panel discussion, the always quotable T. Boone Pickens mentioned an exchange he had with a foreign pooh-bah. “What does the rest of the world think about our energy dependence on foreign oil?” (That’s the gist of the question.) The man demurred, but Boone pressed him. Finally, the man said, “we think you look stupid.”


Which begs the question: Are Americans stupid?

I don’t think so, and here’s why. Years ago I was a graduate student at University of Arizona in American Indian Studies, studying with, among others, the late, great Vine Deloria. The topic one days was language and how it both shapes and reflects our world. The prof (I think it was Vine, but it could have been someone else) gave a powerful example.

“In [some Native American language], there’s no way to say an individual person is stupid. You can’t say they’re smart, either. Or brave or a coward,” he said. “You can say a rock is hard or a very tall tree is noble.” He explained the difference: Rocks and trees aren’t capable of change. They are what they are. Humans have the potential to change.

You can say a person is acting stupidly or bravely in that language, but embedded in the syntax is the belief that a person can change her or his behavior. People aren’t rocks or trees.

My point being that Americans are not stupid. Not collectively or individually. We sure as hell are acting stupidly, however. Change is possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.

We can act to change course. On the other hand, we can continue acting stupidly and pumping out CO2 as if there are no consequences to our actions, as if the piper will never demand payment. We can do that until we no longer have the capacity for change. Because by cooking our planet and destroying the ecosystems we are part of and depend on, we will become as dead as rocks.


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