The question is not if America will transform its energy system but when.

That was the underlying message delivered by physicist and energy policy expert
 Dr. Joseph Romm at a screening of Dirty Business in Washington, DC in early March. Romm’s public comments echoed those he made in the documentary, which
 investigates the coal industry’s efforts to market ‘clean coal’ technology.

“There’s no question that we know what the future is going to be. But are we smart
 enough to (change) it voluntarily, or kicking and screaming,” he asked. Romm,
 a physicist, was Assistant Secretary of Energy for Energy Efficiency and
 Renewable Energy during the Clinton Administration, and now writes the widely 
read Climate Progress blog, a platform in which he frequently rails against fossil fuel 
advocates and climate change deniers.

“We’re in an epic fight. Not just for future generations but for our own sons and 
daughters.”

Romm underscored the urgent need for the U.S. to drastically reduce its hefty 
emissions of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. America’s inability to wean
itself off dirty energy results not from a lack of technology, he contended, but from a 
failure of environmental and economic foresight and a lack of political will.

Even in China, he said, where a new coal plant is built on a near-weekly basis and 
GHG-emissions are the highest in the world, the pace of renewable development 
has left the U.S. in the dust. And despite the current Congress’ refusal to enact
 comprehensive emissions regulations, now is the critical decade for America to take
 action and restructure its energy system.

“I don’t know if we’re smart enough to deploy,” he said, “or quick enough to 
avert catastrophe. What’s clear is that the U.S. isn’t going to be the leader in
 this. “Unfortunately, what it looks like we’re going to do is dawdle away this decade.
We’re going to skip over the serious phase and go straight to desperate in 2020.”

“Desperate,” he explains means, an increase in destructive climactic weather events
 and major worldwide food and water shortages. But, he adds, desperation may also 
be the only thing that forces change.

“If the U.S. ever got truly desperate, we could replace our energy system in 10 years,” he contends. “It would just require a united effort, which we’re nowhere
 near doing.”

There also lies a glint of hope in economic realities. By 2015, Romm predicts, solar
 will, in many states, be competitive to increasingly scarce fossil fuel sources. And by 
2020, the industry could potentially sustain itself without government subsidies.

The most effective deployment strategy for the U.S. government, said Romm, would 
be to use everything in its arsenal to combat rising emission rates. Along with
incentives for a boom in renewables, this would include aggressive energy efficiency 
programs that he estimates could save the country roughly $30 billion a year.

So the question, then, becomes, how to get the average citizen to understand this
 urgency, to recognize the facts at play, and to get beyond the he-said-she-said
media clamor that has effectively undermined concrete scientific conclusions. It’s a
 message that the environmental community, he suggests, has failed to sufficiently
 articulate. There is, for example, a glaring lack of understanding of the link between
 environmental agencies like the EPA and the existence of clean air and water.

Foremost, said Romm, Americans need to start understanding that with greenhouse
 gas emissions and climate change, we are fast approaching a point of no return.

“Nature bats last,” he said. “And there are no do-over’s in science.”