January 19, 2007
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Well, so much for our daffodils! They all bloomed in our front yard last week. They now form a nice bright yellow cluster at the bottom of our driveway. Temperatures of 65 degrees in Washington in January will do that. Frankly, daffodils in January do brighten up the lawn. Maybe next year we’ll try for roses in February.
Don’t know about you, but when I see things in nature that I’ve never seen in my life, like daffodils blooming in January, it starts to feel creepy, like a “Twilight Zone” segment. I half expect to wake one day and find Rod Serling mowing my lawn — in shorts.
Why not? Last December was the fourth warmest on record, and 2006 was the hottest year in America since 1895. It was declared the hottest in Britain since 1659.
Even the White House seems to have noticed. Al Hubbard, the president’s economic adviser, says Mr. Bush will soon unveil an energy independence strategy that will produce “headlines above the fold that will knock your socks off.” Since everything the president has done on energy up to now has left my socks firmly in place, I will be eager to hear what Mr. Bush says.
Neither the White House nor the Democratic Party seems to grasp that the public and business community are miles ahead of them on this energy/environment issue. The presidential candidate who finally figures that out, though — and comes up with a compelling energy/environment agenda — is going to have a real leg up in 2008.
What would be compelling? I used to think it would be a “Manhattan Project” on energy. I don’t any longer. I’ve learned that there is no magic bullet for reducing our dependence on oil and emissions of greenhouse gases — and politicians who call for one are usually just trying to avoid asking for sacrifice today.
The right rallying call is for a “Green New Deal.” The New Deal was not built on a magic bullet, but on a broad range of programs and industrial projects to revitalize America. Ditto for an energy New Deal. If we are to turn the tide on climate change and end our oil addiction, we need more of everything: solar, wind, hydro, ethanol, biodiesel, clean coal and nuclear power — and conservation.
It takes a Green New Deal because to nurture all of these technologies to a point that they really scale would be a huge industrial project. If you have put a windmill in your yard or some solar panels on your roof, bless your heart. But we will only green the world when we change the very nature of the electricity grid — moving it away from dirty coal or oil to clean coal and renewables. And that is a huge industrial project — much bigger than anyone has told you. Finally, like the New Deal, if we undertake the green version, it has the potential to create a whole new clean power industry to spur our economy into the 21st century.
To spark a Green New Deal today requires getting two things right: government regulations and prices. Look at California. By setting steadily higher standards for the energy efficiency of buildings and appliances — and creating incentives for utilities to work with consumers to use less power — California has held its per-capita electricity use constant for 30 years, while the rest of the nation has seen per- capita electricity use increase by nearly 50 percent, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That has saved California from building 24 giant power plants.
Had Ronald Reagan not rolled back the higher fuel efficiency standards imposed on Detroit, we might need no Middle East oil today. High standards force innovation, and innovation leads to conservation at scale.
But prices also matter. I don’t care whether it is a federal gasoline tax, carbon tax, B.T.U. tax or cap-and-trade system, power utilities, factories and car owners have to be required to pay the real and full cost to society of the carbon they put into the atmosphere. And higher costs for fossil fuels make more costly clean alternatives more competitive.
“The regulated utilities are the most important consumers from the perspective of long-term investment, and if they are not required to value carbon reduction then they will under-invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy,” Peter Darbee, chairman of Pacific Gas and Electric, said to me.
This isn’t rocket science. Government standards matter. They drive innovation and efficiency. And prices matter. They drive more and cleaner energy choices. So when the president unveils his energy proposals, if they don’t call for higher efficiency standards and higher prices for fossil fuels — take your socks off yourself. It’s going to get hot around here.