July 19, 2008

History in The Making: Gore's Challenge Will Transform The Political Landscape

Why Gore's "Generational Challenge to Repower America" changes everything.

Rock Star Al Gore (formerly a politician but now rivaling a rock star in his popularity), pulled a great performance in Washington DC this week when he got on to the stage and sang "Gimme 100% baby."

If you don't know what I'm talking about, Al Gore delivered a landmark speech on Thursday in which he proposed an audacious target of generating 100% U.S. electricity from renewable energy resources by 2018.

Having been frustrated for years over lack of vision on this issue from all of our leaders, the news had an electrifying effect.

Prior to Gore, no one has had the courage to propose such a humongous target. Not the biggest environmentalists, not the doomsday scientists, no journalist, no engineer. The closest someone has come is Lester Brown. In his book Plan B 3.0 he argues for a complete switch to renewables (largely wind power) and an eventual 80% reduction in emissions by 2020.

But even Lester Brown acknowledges that his plan is guided not by political feasibility but the necessity of such a target. Gore's plan on the other hand is unapologetically bold. He argues that not only is it feasible, it's also attractive as it will create employment and will pay for itself several times over. Besides, Gore's target betters Brown's by two years. Every other plan or proposal talks about 2030 or 2050 targets. Even an organisation as radical as the Greenpeace wouldn't have thought of proposing anything as audacious as this.

This is leadership.

Exactly What's Needed

And this is exactly the kind of leadership we need. Every few days a new report or evidence appears raising alarm about the extent of changes to our climate while our politicians are busy sleeping or playing the blame game. When we do hear of solutions and plans, they are piecemeal solutions, half measures and plans that are guided by outdated science.

Not A Technological Challenge

Some reports are calling Gore's plan unrealistic or outright crazy arguing that it's impossible. Well, perhaps they should meet executives of Ausra, the Australian company now based in U.S which is building Gigawatt scale solar thermal plants using a new technology that's cheaper than 2020 cost projections of the current one. Or maybe it's T Boone Pickens they should be meeting who's investing a billion dollars to install world's largest wind farm in Texas.

Perhaps they should pay a visit to Greg Watson of Green and Gold Energy who's installing hundreds of MW of concentrator photovoltaic solar farms around the world that produce energy at three times the efficiency of traditional solar panels and at less than 40% of the cost. Or maybe they need to learn about Blue Energy which has orders worth thousands of MW of their tidal energy turbine platform for the oceans that also works as a bridge.

Gore did not create this target out of thin air. As he said in the speech, he met with engineers, scientists, and CEOs and had consultations over "solutions summits". One such expert was Paul Gipe whom Gore met in January this year. When asked about Gore's target, he said, "Ten years is certainly an aggressive target, but many experts [including himself] who consulted with Gore have said that it is achievable."

As someone who has been tracking emerging renewable energy solutions around the world, I came to conclude some time back that this is NOT a technological problem. We have all the technology today to take this issue head on. What we lack is the political courage. And this is what Gore has attempted to infuse in the leadership by setting up what others are calling an impossible target.

Great Timing

Before Gore gave the speech, fellow Democrats were complaining that it was poorly timed. They thought the party would be seen as "caring more about polar bears than Americans who have had to pay record prices for gasoline." Actually, there couldn't have been a better timing for Gore's challenge.

As Gore said in his speech, rising price of fossil fuels have made renewables more attractive than ever before. Those of us who care more about the environment than the economy have been watching rising energy prices with much glee. Each Dollar per barrel of oil price rise translates directly into reduced consumption of oil and reduced consumption of everything else that gets expensive.

At the same time it also makes renewable cost competitive as the gap between their prices narrows down. So this is absolutely the right time to make the transition to clean energy. As price of oil gets higher -- it's projected to be $200/barrel before the end of this year -- things will only get better.

Transformation of Political Landscape

I have not the slightest doubt in my mind that one or both presidential candidates will either announce that they're accepting Gore's challenge or will be forced to announce it.

Here's how I think things will go: Gore will give Obama and McCain time to announce the acceptance. If after a certain period, they don't, he's going to call out to the public to put pressure on them to do so. Either way, they will have to take on Gore's challenge now or when the oil crisis worsens.

Moreover, each candidate will try to out do the other in being first to make the announcements. I'm certain as I write, they are holding their own consultations with energy experts and are closely watching how people react to Gore's call. One thing is clear though, the public is on Gore's side.

According to an online poll that's currently running on San Francisco Chronicle website, close to 70% people believe the goal of carbon-free electricity is achievable with only 15% doubting it (live results on left). The increasing public support for the plan will mount enormous pressure on the candidates to accept the plan even though they very well understand that implementing it will require nothing short of another industrial revolution.

If the next president accepts Gore's challenge -- and if you ask me, that's close to a certainty -- then climate politics will be altered forever. This is going to set the agenda at G8 and it's is going to inspire UNFCCC to take bold decisions. As has always been the case in recent history, the world will follow the United States.

With a progressive U.S. stance, other nations, particularly the developing world will no longer be able to blame the West. So there's little chance the West will permit these countries to continue doubling or quadrupling their emissions every few decades. In other words, Gore's challenge changes everything.

Planned Strategy

It's obvious that Gore had planned this move a long time ago. It seems to be part of the deliberate strategy in which he refused to enter the presidential race earlier this year despite being pressured from all quarters and enjoying huge public support. Gore has played his trump card at a time when he has endorsed Obama and the latter has openly stated that he will consult Gore on the climate challenge. Now it will be extremely difficult for Obama to ignore Gore's call.

Turning Point

The challenge to generate all of U.S. electricity from clean energy sources by 2018 will give a huge boost to environmentalists and others around the world fighting for big reductions. As I wrote above, this will lead to increasing pressure on nations around the world and might well prove to be a turning point in our fight to combat climate change.

If the applause he received during his speech and the number of news headlines on the topic are any indication, Gore's new number appears to be an instant hit. Now it remains to be seen how it does on the charts. I can't seem to get it out of my head.

Words of Caution

A few words of caution lest anyone should complain of the overly optimistic future gazing above. Admittedly, this is only a speech although it's the very first time that we have someone calling for a bold and visionary response on this issue commensurate with the challenge. The speech has not been endorsed yet by either of the presidential nominees.

If the United States alone meets the challenge ten year later, that does not mean climate change would suddenly end. The developing countries need to move to clean energy as well. Besides, there is still warming already in the pipeline that will continue to worsen climate change for some time.

Another point to remember is that tomorrow if oil drops to $100 a barrel or below it might delay, if not threaten, implementation of Gore's plan. History of past oil crises show that as soon as oil gets cheaper people forget about conservation and alternatives.

This entry was also made on IYCN blog What's With The Climate.

Update 21-Jul: Some news reports are saying that Obama has accepted Gore's challenge. While both McCain and Obama have released statements welcoming the challenge, with Obama embracing it more wholeheartedly, it would not be entirely correct to say that either of them have accepted it.

It is not until they really commit to take it on with an explicit change in their previously stated energy policies, that it would be called an acceptance. John McCain's website does not even mention Gore's challenge (at least not under media releases) while Obama's site still states that he's looking at 80% emission reductions by 2050 and to "invest $150 Billion over 10 years in clean energy."

In other words, Obama has committed to investing 15 billion every year for ten years. This is way off Al Gore's plan which calls for investing several times that sum. Gore has said it will cost $1.5-$3 trillion over 30 years or an investment of $50-$100 billion every year.

4 Comments so far      

Anonymous Thaddeus:

Manu, I’ve been also wrestling with exactly what my response is. Grand statements by distant politicians are things I generally ignore, but I think this is a bit different.

This is a significant endorsement of a growing scientific and grass roots movement that has been capturing the minds and hearts of millions of Americans over the last 10 years. Current energy prices and the evidence about climate change have been thumping steadily in the background for quite some time. There is a malaise of doom, discontent and a certain degree of self-loathing that permeates our society right now, and not without reason.

The fact is that we are propagating our own destruction 1) Environmentally through the toxins of extraction and emissions of consumption 2) Economically—by shipping vast wealth overseas into societies who use it to prop up the power and luxury of a few while virtually enslaving many and funneling vast sums of money into the hands of extremist terrorists 3) politically both because of our funding of those who would like to destroy our society and also by continually withdrawing from the account of global good will through unilateral, self-serving policies. And oh, by the way we’re so far in debt that we can’t do anything about it anyway. It’s a deep malaise.

In the midst of this, there are many whose hope can burn through the fog. It has started, as it usually does, at the grass roots with ‘radical’ scientists, highly independent DIY (do it yourself) weirdoes, and a few social visionaries, but it had been gaining strength. There is hope for real change here but the question remains if Gore’s message will be the galvanizing force that brings it all to a head in the way that Kennedy’s speech put us behind the Apollo program. I doubt it. I think his is an important voice in the growing chorus but it falls short of unleashing unfettered American will power.

Personally, I am also very excited by what he has said. If we take a nation-wide approach to this and convert our crazy patchwork grid into something that can actually move electricity around instead of just shipping it from sources to hubs I think we can even conquer the issues of intermittency of supply that you and I have discussed. It would all be MUCH easier if we Americans could actually focus on increasing our efficiency and/or reducing our consumption.

Unfortunately, economic pain seems to be the only thing that drives our behavior in that regard. The ‘good’ news is that we are feeling quite a bit of economic pain at the moment, and so there are some indications that things are beginning to change. The bottom line is that what he is advocating is possible, and his stepping forward to put himself on the line in saying so is a big step forward for those of us working to address these issues.

Politically, (and here is where the real impact remains to be seen), the good news is that both candidates have responded favorably but stopped short of fully endorsing Gore’s plan. Their first priority is to get elected and it is not yet clear if Gore’s ideas would be an asset or an liability in the minds of the general population. I believe in the sincerity of both candidates positions on climate change and the need to invest more in renewable energy sources, but feel that we will be better off with Obama in this regard (and several others).

McCain will be too hindered by his party’s conservatism and ties to big oil and nukes. My sincere hope is that this will fire the imaginations of the American public just a little bit more, and that we can get some political muscle behind moves that stop providing covert subsidies for fossil fuels and make it easier for renewables to compete. The fact is that there is a lot going on right now and a lot of money being invested on a small and medium scale. As one commentator noted with typical American hubris:

“The correct response to Mr. Gore’s proposal would be a rush to figure out ways to make it happen. Don’t hold your breath.

When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can’t-do society? It wasn’t at the very beginning when 13 ragamuffin colonies went to war against the world’s mightiest empire. It wasn’t during World War II when Japan and Nazi Germany had to be fought simultaneously. It wasn’t in the postwar period that gave us the Marshall Plan and a robust G.I. Bill and the interstate highway system and the space program and the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the greatest society the world had ever known.”

I believe that we can return to our “can-do” roots and that we are already on our way, but not quite fully committed yet.

21 July 2008 at 20:45:00 GMT+5:30 link  
Blogger Manu Sharma:

Thanks, Thaddeus. I completely agree that as of today, the political, social & economic environment to take this plan forward is not there. Gore has acknowledged this as well in his interviews after the speech.

We need a) the candidates to understand the gravity of the multitude of problems, particularly climate change; b) the people to understand the need for the switch and get behind Gore's challenge; and c) the economy to worsen / oil price to rise further, for this to happen.

I think we're getting there. I think the route this will take will be c --> b --> a.

Continued oil price rise (I hope it gets back on track after the recent slump!) will create more public discontent which hopefully will lead to greater support for Gore's plan and eventually force the politicians to endorse it.

This might seem too simplistic but it's the most likely direction things appear to be moving. The key is, oil price must keep rising!

21 July 2008 at 21:21:00 GMT+5:30 link  
Anonymous Thaddeus:

Well stated. I can’t believe I am hoping for the damn price to keep rising. Even more important, even if it falls, we need proof that it is not a bubble. Here in the US we want to put all the blame on speculators. A popping bubble would confirm those beliefs. A price that merely drops to something above $100/barrel will force people to realize there has been a fundamental shift that needs to be taken seriously vs. slapping the wrists of a few future’s traders.

21 July 2008 at 21:28:00 GMT+5:30 link  
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13 November 2009 at 11:36:00 GMT+5:30 link  

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