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Five questions for the 21st Century

Excerpts on the subject of energy from former President Bill Clinton's Landon Lecture Friday, March 2, at Kansas State University. See the original article for the full text. -BA

...Third question: How should we try to change this world? I think we should try to move from interdependence which is good or bad to integration to a set of integrated communities locally, nationally, and globally. All integrated communities — university sports teams, families, businesses, military units — all integrated communities, successful ones, have three things in common.

They have shared opportunities to participate, shared responsibilities for the welfare of the whole, and a sense of genuine belonging. That is if you're part of one related to all the other members in the unit you think that your differences are interesting but your common humanity, your common membership, matters more. This is very, very important.

...But if you look at the modern world we have no choice but to try to move from interdependence to integration cause the world we live in today is we can't keep going this way. We can't keep going with half the people left out of it economically. It's unequal. It's also unstable.

...The third thing I want to say about it is that it is unsustainable because of climate change and because in addition to climate change because of resource depletion. Matthew Simmons, a distinguished petroleum investor who is no liberal Democrat tree-hugger like me, he is one of the Bush family's close friends. He's a conservative Republican. He says we have 35 years of recoverable oil left. The Saudis and Exxon say no, no we've probably got 100 years. Now the oldest city in civilization according to carbon dating that we know about today is Jericho in the Middle East, 10,000 years old. That means that the real happy talk people are saying we have a hundred years out of 10,000, one percent of the whole history of civilization, left to burn oil.

In addition to oil we have serious topsoil erosion around the world, which is going to create food shortages and food refugees. In the last decade only Argentina and Brazil which have about 22 feet of topsoil, still the biggest deposits in the world, only Argentina and Brazil in the last decade had significant increases in food yields.

America and Canada and the bread basket of Europe, they held their own. They continued to produce very well but we didn't have any big breakthroughs.

That only happened in those two countries. The world population is supposed to go to nine billion by the middle of the century from six-and-a-half billion today. How are we going to feed all these people if the soil keeps eroding?

You have water quality erosion, you have biodiversity loss. Ninety percent of the major fishing areas of the world are now understocked. So what we're doing is not sustainable. Good and bad but unequal, unstable, unsustainable but if we went to a set of communities locally, nationally, globally where we had shared opportunities for participation, shared responsibilities for our common welfare, and a genuine sense of belonging because our common humanity is more important than our interesting differences we'd have a chance to overcome all these problems.

...Now, this decade has not seen its source of new jobs, that's the problem. That's why we've got flat wages. Yet it is a bird's nest on the ground. If we made a serious commitment to a clean independent energy future, we would create those jobs in Kansas and across the country.

You do not have to accept my word for this you can look at the evidence. I'll give you two pieces of evidence.

Number one, in Europe the economies that look most like America's, that is the ones that are the most free market oriented, the most unregulated, are probably the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. In Denmark, unlike America, their unemployment rate is almost identical to ours but their growth rate is higher, their wages are going up, inequality is going down.

Why? In the last few years the Danish economy has increased in size by 50 percent. Now at the same time estimate how much their energy use has increased and how much their greenhouse gas emissions have increased. Answer? Zero. Nothing, zero, no increase in energy use, no increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Their greenhouse gas emissions have gone down while their economy has gone up 50 percent because they have also decided to generate 22 percent of the electricity from wind. Let's take the U.K. even more like us. In my last year as President when we negotiated, in '98 not my last year, we negotiated the Kyoto climate change accord which calls for all these countries to cut their greenhouse gas emission down below 1990 level by 2012.

Al Gore and a guy named Stu Eizenstat went to Japan to propose this deal for me and I was signing off on it. They didn't even get off the airplane before the Senate voted against it. One hundred percent of the Republicans and nearly 100 percent of the Democrats voted against it before I could send it to them because they said ... would bankrupt America if we had to reduce our energy consumption and the poison we were spewing into the air. It would be the end of civilization as we knew it.

Then when I gave a speech on climate change it elicited a giant yawn from all but the most fanatic members of the press on the subject. Now look at what the United Kingdom did. United Kingdom said something very different. They said oh we like the Kyoto accord. It's a perfectly nice little piece of paper but the truth is it's a little bit of a weak sister. It's too much compromise it's too weak. We're going to beat our Kyoto targets by 25 to 50 percent.

Guess what? They did and their unemployment rate is as low as ours but their wages are going up and inequality has not gone up and their growth is high because of all the jobs they created in clean energy. The British government has actually put out a list by category of how many new jobs they created by beating their Kyoto targets and they're so excited they're gonna beat them again.

I'm telling you if you look around here the greatest thing about biofuels of any kind is that they don't travel well. That's good. That means no big long pipelines and every 50 or 100 or 200 miles you got to have a new production facility and a new distribution network and we can revitalize rural America.

We can bring back the small towns and the rural areas. Once we get a cost conversion fix on cellulosic ethanol we can do it without having corn prices so high that all the chicken people and the cattle feeders go out of business and everybody goes crazy. We can do it all in a balanced way here.

But it's not just that, it's not just that. My library has 308 solar reflectors. I cut my greenhouse gas emissions 34 percent. Those things were made in America by Americans.

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