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.”