A convenient solution to an inconvenient truth

Al Gore’s call for America to develop 100% of its electricity from renewables within 10 years has a quintessentially American character. It’s bold, grand, inspiring and arrogant. It contains no half measures or compromises. It’s an epic, all-in-one solution. It is not for America to bend meekly to the will of world opinion – that is not the American way. They will show strong and courageous leadership, outperforming all other countries and saving the world at the same time. It is the Hollywood ending to Climate Change: The Movie.

Gore compares this challenge to landing a man on the moon, and concludes:

“We must now lift our nation to reach another goal that will change history. Our entire civilization depends upon us now embarking on a new journey of exploration and discovery. Our success depends on our willingness as a people to undertake this journey and to complete it within 10 years. Once again, we have an opportunity to take a giant leap for humankind.”

Unfortunately, space exploration and the complete transformation of a nation’s electricity generation and distribution network are two very different challenges. The Apollo Project was an impressive triumph of science and engineering backed by a big injection of money. But it was effectively a demonstration project, a showcase of American ingenuity in the midst of the Cold War. It did not, however, attempt to shift the economy or transform people’s lives in any meaningful way. A grand project for the world’s biggest energy consumer to change the way it produces electricity is on a scale several orders of magnitude bigger.

Apart from the size of the problem, there is a more fundamental distinction. Creating something new is relatively easy. Transforming something old is far more difficult. To expect a country to produce a huge number of new wind turbines, well beyond the current world manufacturing capacity, is one thing. To ask it to scrap 1493 coal plants, along with the jobs and companies that keep them running, is much harder. The term “vested interests” comes to mind.

The implication of Gore’s challenge is essentially that scientists and entrepreneurs can save us, all we need is to have sufficient political will. This is a dangerously simplistic claim. It is easily lampooned by opponents, and creates unrealistic expectations for the supporters of climate action.

Moreover, for the vast majority of Americans, whose current way of life is “non-negotiable” (as very accurately expressed by Dick Cheney), it is an excuse for complacency. No need to worry, we’ll just build some windmills and drive electric cars; problem solved. Gore does admit, very briefly, that some other things might have to change:

“At the same time, of course, we need to greatly improve our commitment to efficiency and conservation. That’s the best investment we can make.”

You would have missed it if you blinked. Nothing else in his 3259 word speech is so bold as to suggest that Americans may have to curb their insatiable demand for energy. That would be too inconvenient to contemplate…

One Response to “A convenient solution to an inconvenient truth”

  1. Responsible economic policy, political compromise, or a victory for big business? « Everything is changing Says:

    [...] not about to scrap our coal-fired power stations and replace them with wind farms overnight, a la Al Gore’s challenge for America, the more important question for me is the effect this will have on the implementation of carbon [...]


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