My turn: Green revolution begins

Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2008

In his inspirational speech on election night, President-elect Barack Obama reminded us of critical challenges that confront us: "two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century." Along with the mandate to withdraw combat forces from Iraq and rebuild the economy, the decisive election victory sent a clear message that America expects the new administration and new Congress to lead a green revolution to save our "planet in peril."

We have wasted decades and squandered endless opportunity to make the transition to an environmentally sustainable society, and many feel that for this issue, it's now or never. The Obama administration and new Congress may be our last best hope to transform our obsolete, broken down economy into a green, equitable, and sustainable one - a green revolution. To be sure, this will be no less challenging or less consequential than the great social transformations of our past: the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, the end of slavery, women's rights, and civil rights. But a green revolution is not just possible, it is essential.

On energy and climate, the challenge is urgent, the solutions clear. Climate scientists now say that reducing the level of atmospheric CO2 from its current 385 ppm to 350 ppm will be necessary "to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted." To meet this target, our new government must urgently transform our wasteful, carbon-intensive economy into an efficient, clean, low-carbon economy.

The Obama energy plan is right on target: Invest $150 billion over five years to create five million new clean energy jobs; one million plug-in electric hybrid cars (getting 150 miles a gallon) on the road by 2015; higher fuel economy standards; tax credits for buying advanced, efficient vehicles; 25 percent of our electricity from alternatives by 2025; an Alaska natural gas pipeline; a carbon cap-and-trade system to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050; one million homes weatherized a year, and substantial investment in energy efficiency. We should be well on our way to implementing this plan before the post-Kyoto climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009.

Climate and energy are not the only issues that need urgent attention in our green revolution. We need to protect and restore what remains of our decimated forests, oceans, wetlands, coral reefs, farmlands, and rivers. We need to protect endangered species. We need to improve the material efficiency of our economy 10-fold. We need to rid the world of the pernicious threat that nuclear weapons pose to all life on Earth. We need to help stabilize world population. We need to strengthen regulations for clean air and water. We need to transform our agricultural and transportation sectors to low-impact systems. We need to minimize the threat of invasive species, and reduce toxic contaminants in our ecosystems and bodies. And by doing all of this, we will rebuild our economy as a green economy, with millions of new high paying, green jobs.

Initially, this will take government support. And not only can we afford to do this, we cannot afford not to. Government can get hundreds of billions of dollars a year to fund the green revolution simply by eliminating perverse subsidies currently paid to unsustainable industrial sectors (fossil fuel, nuclear fission, conventional agribusiness, inefficient transport, etc.); and increasing taxes on these same unsustainable sectors.

And finally, because the green revolution will not be sustainable if America is "an island of affluence in a sea of misery," we need to help the rest of the world join the revolution with modest foreign aid. It is in our enlightened self-interest to help those failed states where hopelessness and despair breed terrorism, political instability, and environmental degradation. U.S. aid is essential to help the two billion poorest people on Earth with education, health care, family planning, low-carbon energy, clean water, food, sustainable development, and environmental restoration. As an investment in the global green revolution, U.S. foreign aid needs to be increased at least four-fold to $100 billion per year.

Regardless of our political persuasion, who we voted for, how or where we live, it is clear that the green revolution is the only way forward to a prosperous, sustainable future for all. President John Kennedy recognized this common fate when he noted: "In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, and we all cherish our children's future." It is time we took this to heart, and acted as such.

As Obama said on election night: "This is our time." So let the green revolution begin.

• Rick Steiner is a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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