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Talking the Talk

Burnt toastOn Wednesday June 2, President Barack Obama called for an end to U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. Continuing reliance on oil, coal, and natural gas will, he said, “jeopardize our national security, it will smother our planet and it will continue to put our economy and our environment at risk.”

That is the essence of our organization’s message to the world, so we at Post Carbon Institute couldn’t be happier to hear these words from the White House bully pulpit. It’s just possible that someone on President Obama’s staff has been listening to us. If so, hear this too: This is going to be a very big job, and while public education is an essential component, bold action will also be needed.

The President is right in saying that getting off of fossil fuels is an important priority. If anything, he understates the case: if we don’t succeed in doing this, we are toast—certainly in the figurative sense, and perhaps literally as well. In fact, the post-carbon imperative needs to be understood as the central organizing principle of government policy for the next two or three decades. Otherwise, it will not be possible to organize anywhere near the level of effort needed.

What sort of effort are we talking about? Here’s a short list of what needs to happen:

  • Enormous investment (many hundreds of billions of dollars cumulatively, spread out over a couple of decades) in solar, wind, and other alternative energy sources
  • Massive shifts in transport infrastructure—away from internal combustion engines and toward electrification, including provision of electrified public transport options in every town and city
  • A complete overhaul of urban planning at all levels to reduce the need for both commuting and long-distance shopping trips
  • An epic effort to retrofit housing, especially across the northern tier of the nation, to dramatically reduce the need for indoor heating in winter months and to provide alternate heat sources
  • A comprehensive redesign of the American food system, from farm to plate, to reduce fossil fuel inputs, soil erosion, and the need for irrigation.

The price tag? No one knows for sure, but it’s certain to be in the trillions of dollars.

Seeing just how gargantuan this task really is, a political leader might be tempted just to pay lip service to the energy transition—and, when it comes time to act, simply kick the can on down the road, leaving the job for someone else to follow through on. In that case we get what the President only hints at: utter and complete economic and environmental ruin, plus a few more oil wars thrown in for good measure.

So far, Mr. Obama is using his truth-telling moment about our fossil fuel addiction mostly to promote the Kerry-Lieberman cap-and-trade climate bill that’s stalled in the Senate. Unfortunately, this is a bill whose passage is debatably even a decent start in the direction of needed change. There are also some suggestions on the table about reducing tax breaks to oil companies; this is unquestionably a good idea—a no-brainer, in fact. But is it the beginning of a grand historic effort to transition the nation to a sustainable footing, or merely the last policy item on the list of what is politically possible for a besieged President in a mid-term election year?

We’ve heard the talk, and we at Post Carbon Institute couldn’t agree more. Now: let’s all go for a nice long walk.

Photo credit: Sheep Purple/flickr

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