We all watched with horror this week as Sandy carved a path of destruction through some of the most populous areas of our country. Please, stop reading this, go find a way to help, and then when you can, come back to the rest of this. Let's focus on helping those in need as a clear first priority.
It's been fascinating to me to watch how quickly the media and some politicians have pivoted this week, post-Sandy, to talking seriously about the dangers of climate change. Whereas just last week I felt the conversation was so pushed to the sidelines that even just forcing a sober discussion would be a step forward.
Let's acknowledge one basic fact: If we ever get to the point where energy and climate security is consistently a high priority for most Americans on every single day, we're already in a terrible place. Day to day, most Americans will care about stuff that has a more immediate impact on their lives. Sadly, we're increasingly getting to that bad place -- as Gov. Cuomo said this week, "We have a 100-year flood every two years now," and the extreme weather the U.S. felt this year is probably now more the norm than the exception.
But if we're going to work to mitigate that outcome, we need to grab the infrequent opportunities to push for change when Americans, their politicians, and journalists are focused on the issue.
So what does that mean? What do we do now (other than helping those in immediate need, of course)?
I think my proposal from last week, for a bipartisan presidentially nominated commission to develop and propose a coherent energy policy, is even more important today. At times like this, it's easy to forget that within a month or less, the conversation will have moved on to something else. And no coherent energy policy will magically transport itself through Congress within a month, nor will politicians remember this so vividly next year when any such policy discussion might come up. Energy policy is increasingly (and uselessly and needlessly) a partisan issue. We must wrest that back to the realm of collaborative thinking and compromise, and codifying that spirit in such a "Simpson-Bowles" effort can help, especially if it is mandated by the President, whoever that is. We need to set the process in motion to develop a consensus energy policy, even if it won't pass in the 113th Congress, because unless we have something like that ready to go, the next big "teaching moment" will be wasted like so many in the past have been. That's, at the very least, what we need to do this time.
What we can't do is to let the opportunity fragment into the usual million pieces of individual and NGO-specific policy advocacy. I continue to talk with many people who care deeply about this issue, and yet who each have their own strongly held perspective about the policy ideas that they feel can be passed, and then who set upon each other with rhetorical knives fighting over which specific policies make the most sense. That's dumb. If we can't collaborate and compromise amongst ourselves, how can we expect collaboration and compromise across a wider political spectrum? We need to find a vehicle to come up with a plausible, coherent, and centrist set of policy proposals that we can all agree upon supporting, even if we all don't 100% agree with all of it. Stop with the constant "what if we relabeled it as the following" policy proposals. Start being a constituency, not just a smart individual or attention-seeking NGO.
What we can't do is to let this just be a cleantech industry issue. The cleantech industry is a terrible spokesperson for addressing climate change. When we as a fledgling industry narrowly focus the argument on ourselves, we look selfish and therefore are ineffective.
But climate change is not a cleantech issue. It's not a green issue. It's a security issue, an economic issue, a food issue, an energy issue, a military issue, a safety issue for all Americans. The fight to mitigate climate change needs to be led by large insurance companies, by major manufacturers, by farmers, by soldiers, by homeowners, NOT by a handful of cleantech entrepreneurs and their increasingly scarce financial backers. Not that we don't have our own role to play. But we need to stop making it all about ourselves.
For example, anytime I see a policy proposal from the cleantech community to address the externalities of climate change (via carbon tax or cap and trade, etc), it's coupled to a proposal to recycle the resultant government revenues into subsidies for cleantech deployment, or cleantech R&D. Yes, we need all of this -- to price carbon, to support early deployment, and to support R&D. But when we bundle them all together, we appear to be looking to make others pay taxes just for our own benefit. It's easily cast that way, at least. Let's be smarter about keeping those conversations and proposals separate. And let's be smarter about making sure we're clearly looking for benefits for other important constituencies (i.e., manufacturers, etc.), not just ourselves.
What we can't do is to just throw up our hands and blame a partisan Congress and be fatalistic. If you've given up on even the slightest chance of bipartisanship in the face of a crisis, you've given up on America. Certainly President Obama and Governor Christie get this. But so far this morning I've already been pinged several times by people in our industry who just seem ready to declare nothing will be done and it's all the Republicans' fault. That's just useless thinking. Stop it. First of all, there's been arguably more environmental policy progress done in this country over the past half-century under Republican presidents and congresses than under Democrats. This isn't historically a red-versus-blue issue, even if it has been recently, and many of even today's politicians remember that. Secondly, if you're just going to throw up your hands and say nothing can be done, then kindly be quiet and move out of the way; others are willing to keep fighting.
What we can't do is let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Already I'm seeing fired-up climate advocates venting in tones that suggest any kind of compromise and any kind of sequential movement toward policy progress is useless. As one person tweeted me this morning: "commissions are sideshows w no teeth NOT PATH TO LONG TERM EFFECTIVE POLICIES" [sic].
The more I hear the above kinds of things from people in our industry, and the more I then speak with people outside of our industry and hear their perspectives on this issue, the more I'm convinced that the real problem is a lack of a coherent consensus policy agenda, and a lack of determination. Americans agree that climate change is real and should be addressed. But the eventual policy proposal that breaks through won't come from just one industry, or from just one smart individual, or from just one party. We need to set the table for a grand compromise that helps us move forward. We need to acknowledge that a consensus-building exercise is a necessary first step.
We need to break this stupid cycle of getting angry and impatient every time a disaster like this happens, not putting in place the mechanisms for a long-term consensus to be reached, and then throwing up our hands and giving up, blaming others for it.
Because every time we end up missing the opportunity. No one wanted to work on the "sideshow w no teeth," and then when the teaching moment happened and there was an opportunity for real change, there was no go-to solution ready to be voted on by a temporarily cowed set of partisans in Congress.
You want to vent? Fine, we're all angry and frustrated at our impotence to provide more help for the victims of Sandy, and to prevent future Sandy-type events from happening; vent away. You want to push more aggressively than simply setting up a longer-term conversation with a presidential mandate? Fine, do that too, I'll be there alongside you. But let's at least lay the "boring" groundwork this time. The stakes are too high. The danger is too real. The waste of life and livelihood and economic damages are too much. Tell the President-elect, whichever one it is, that at VERY LEAST we need to start having a coherent conversation with the right people in the room.
Because without even that? You're just shouting into the wind.
Again: Please help those affected by Sandy. Give generously to your neighbors; next time it could well be you.