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Thinking Outside the Grid: An Aggressive Approach to Climate and Energy

"The issue of our time is the combination of energy security and climate change," says former Congressman Sherwood Boehlert at a forum co-sponsored by Wilson Center On the Hill and ECSP.

Date & Time

Sep. 23, 2008
12:00pm – 1:15pm

Thinking Outside the Grid: An Aggressive Approach to Climate and Energy

"The issue of our time is the combination of energy security and climate change," said former Congressman Sherwood Boehlert at "Thinking Outside the Grid: An Aggressive Approach to Climate and Energy," a September 23, 2008, forum co-sponsored by Wilson Center On the Hill and the Environmental Change and Security Program. Boehlert noted that the energy security-climate change nexus has received more attention lately, due to record gas prices; successful advertisement campaigns like that of Texas oil magnate-turned-wind farm entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens; and bestselling books like Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America.

The Ice Thins and the Plot Thickens: Climate Change Impacts

Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, pointed to the faster-than-expected melting of Arctic ice as an indicator of the severity of the climate crisis. Last year, an ice sheet the size of the United Kingdom disappeared within a week. In addition, reports indicate that glaciers in the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas are also melting rapidly. "Without these glaciers, many of these rivers would be seasonal rivers, running during the rainy season, but not during the dry season," said Brown. Year-round irrigation would decline, ending the double-cropping that is vital for sustaining Asia's massive population. With China and India both major producers of wheat and rice, world food prices would skyrocket, and food insecurity would worsen. "We don't quite grasp this yet," Brown said. "If it is China's problem, it's also our problem…we would be competing with 1.3 billion Chinese, with rapidly rising incomes, for our grain supply."

Investing in Technology to Create a Sustainable Future

We may be able cut carbon emissions enough to prevent the Tibetan glaciers and Greenland ice sheet from melting, said Brown. The investment in renewable energy that used to be incremental—"another wind farm here, another solar installation there"—is now becoming larger-scale, and "we're starting to see some big-time thinking."

Brown believes we can create a sustainable energy future by increasing our investments in existing alternative technologies, including wind, solar, and geothermal projects. One of the leading generators of wind energy, Texas currently has more than 4,000 megawatts of installed wind energy capacity, enough to meet the energy needs of` more than 1 million households. Indonesia's 131 active volcanoes could provide up to 21,000 megawatts of geothermal energy—a significant increase from the country's existing 800 megawatts of installed capacity. The technology exists, Brown argues; the challenge is "to get the market to tell the environmental truth, and that means incorporating the cost of climate change into the cost of fossil fuels."

While skeptics claim it would take decades to restructure America's energy industry and infrastructure, Brown believes transformative change can occur in a matter of months. Reminding the audience that during World War II, the United States exceeded its arms production goals by exploiting the power of the American automotive industry and suspending the sale of private automobiles, Brown argued that the capacity to transform rapidly exists. Now more than ever, Brown urged, we need to harness that capacity. "If we fail, the stakes are far higher than they were in World War II. Then it was a way of life…now we're looking at saving civilization itself," Brown said. "Saving civilization isn't a spectator sport; we all have to be involved."

Industry and Government: Each Must Play a Role

Melanie Kenderdine, associate director of MIT's Energy Initiative, noted that energy companies such as BP and Shell are gradually investing more money in cleaner technologies, and that venture capitalists have also put funds into renewable alternatives. Still, Kenderdine emphasized that "the enemies of urgency are many," so governments must exercise leadership on energy innovation. Ninety percent of the U.S. Department of Energy's budget "is not for energy, has nothing to do with energy," decried Kenderdine. "And if we don't fix that, we're not going to be able to rapidly develop the technologies and do it in the right way with the right incentives, right sequencing of investments that we need in order to deal with the climate issue—we won't be able to accomplish it."

Drafted by Will Rogers and edited by Rachel Weisshaar and Meaghan Parker.

Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more


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