When the Environmental Law and Policy Center was founded in Chicago 15 years ago, cell phones that could get clear reception or send images halfway across the globe were a novelty. Now, this and even more advanced communications technology are parts of our everyday lives.
This is the analogy speakers at the ELPC’s anniversary event — including two Obama advisers and possible picks to head key agencies — invoked to give hope of not only vastly reducing greenhouse gases to curb climate change but reinvigorating the struggling Midwestern and larger American economies in the process.
“There are political opponents who will use the economic crisis to put off action, but scientists are telling us we cannot wait” said ELPC executive director Howard Learner, part of Obama’s team and a possible U.S. EPA head in the new administration.
“Is the economic crisis the end of clean energy, or will clean energy be the answer to the economic crisis?” asked Dan Reicher, head of climate change and energy initiatives for Google and also an Obama adviser mentioned to oversee the Department of Energy in the new administration.
The Midwest, which has suffered so painfully from devastation of the auto economy and general deindustrialization, could lead the way in a new manufacturing economy based on renewable energy. Learner pointed out that thanks to a concentration of trucking and archaic coal-fired power plants, seven Midwestern states are responsible for a quarter of the U.S.‘s carbon dioxide emissions and 5 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions — emissions that have put us on track for a wide range of extreme weather, health and economic effects.
“We’ll have what’s beginning to sound like the plagues — more fires, more droughts, more floods and of course sea level rise,” said Rosina Bierbaum, co-director of the World Bank’s Report on Climate Change 2010, at the ELPC event. “And the most affected will be the poorest, low-lying countries. Climate change will reverse development gains and increase inequalities on the planet…we need a revolution in technology, not incrementalism.”
Michael Polsky, CEO of the utility company Invenergy, said wind power has reached the level that it is not only environmentally friendly but a profitable investment. But he said increased policy focus and changes are needed to continue to facilitate the development of wind and other alternative sources. Most notably, the transmission grid needs to be expanded and upgraded to get electricity generated in wind and solar-friendly areas to the markets that need it. He called for the new administration to provide concrete incentives for alternative energy going beyond tax credits, since young industries like solar power are still not generating enough taxable income to benefit significantly from tax credits.
Reicher wants to involve regular people more directly in revolutionizing the energy system, in part by harnessing technology for a “smarter grid” that gives people real-time information about how much energy they are using and where it comes from, with the hope this information will spur changes in behavior.
“All most people learn is how much they owe and where to send the money,” he said. “We need real-time information and real-time control from a smarter and better grid.”