In this post U.S.-election period there are many articles on what to expect from the U.S. Congress now that Republicans will control both Houses of Congress for at least two years after January 20, 2015. After reading quite a few of them, and authoring one in a recent blog post (‘What Might the 2014 Elections Mean for U.S. Energy and Environmental Policy’), my thoughts turned to the conflict between short-term and long-term thinking in the formulation of energy policy. In particular, I am reminded of the observation by Kevin Phillips, former Republican strategist and then registered Independent, in his 2006 book ‘American Theocracy’, as paraphrased in one of several reviews of his book: “His objective historical notes about previously fallen Empires involved several historical facts that have occurred to other great powers in the past: global usurpation, religious intransigence, debt, and dependency on resources that are *outside* of the nation…..it’s a truthful observation based on statistical facts, not necessarily just opinion. And, it’s a concept that happens to ALL empires over the course of world history.”
In his discussion Phillips refers to the fall of the Roman Empire, but also more recent examples of previously-dominant nations that relied too long on particular energy sources as other resources became available and strategically important. He cites the Netherlands and other maritime nations for dependence on wind energy in the 1600’s, the British dependence on coal in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the U.S. dependence on oil in the 20th century. These points have stuck with me ever since.
U.S. dependence on oil and other fossil fuels (coal, natural gas) in these early years of the 21st century is still extensive, and many vested interests with short-term perspectives are understandably fighting hard to maintain this status quo. Economic self-interest, rather than long-term national interest, is a powerful force and few champions exist in the U.S. Congress for a longer-term perspective. This is fully understandable from a political point-of-view when the next election is only two or fewer than six years away, and politics today is overly-dependent on private campaign contributions. However, this is survival, not leadership, and many if not most of our elected representatives take the easy way out by voting for short-term rather than long-term solutions to our nation’s energy problems. To this observer it seems clear that a transition to a clean energy society is an imperative for the U.S. and other countries, and the faster this transition occurs the better.
As with any transition there are winners and losers, and the U.S. fossil fuel industries feel deeply threatened by potential loss of markets, as is already happening in the coal industry. This will happen in the oil industry as well, as U.S. demand for oil is steadily reduced by more energy-efficient transportation vehicles, and despite the emergence of oil derived from fracking of oil shale deposits. This will also be true of natural gas from fracking, as fracking is likely to be a few decades phenomenon and not a long-term energy resource. On a global basis this transition will be stretched out as developing countries require energy supplies now as their economies develop (e.g., increased demand for cars/transportation fuels in China and India), and renewable energy supplies are developing their ability to meet this growing and long-term demand in an environmentally sustainable way.
Looking beyond self-interest for most people is not easy, and requires champions – i.e., people with a long-term vision of the future (the ‘vision thing’ again, as derisively characterized by President H.W. Bush) who are willing to stick their necks out to propose policies that may have short-term political liabilities. Examples are Lincoln’s decision on Emancipation, Teddy Roosevelt’s protection of the environment and his battles against corporate irresponsibility, FDR’s push for Social Security legislation and banking reform, Truman’s racial integration of the U.S. military, LBJ’s support of civil rights legislation, and Obama’s push for health insurance for millions of previously-uninsured Americans. His recent push for stimulating renewable energy production and reducing U.S. carbon emissions may fall into this category as well.
To be truthful, I see no national leaders post Obama who are naturals to serve this role on energy and environmental policy. Few, if any, Republican politicians are willing to buck the right wing of their Party on energy and other issues, largely out of fear of right-wing primary challenges, and no Democratic leader has assumed this mantle in conspicuous ways. Even Hillary Clinton’s priorities on energy and environmental policy are unclear, despite years in the public limelight, due to her extremely cautious approach to an announcement of her interest in the Democratic nomination for President in the upcoming 2016 election.
In light of all this, I am concerned about our long-term energy future and the price we will pay for not adopting appropriate policies now that will expedite the clean-energy transition, which I consider inevitable. The costs I see are in continued dependence on other countries for parts of our energy supply, less flexibility in our foreign policy, environmental damage due to pollutant and carbon emissions, and long-term economic vulnerability as fossil fuel energy costs rise and other countries take the lead in providing clean-energy technologies to an expanding and more environmentally-sensitive global population. The U.S. has a choice to make, to be a major player in the coming clean-energy future, or continue to resist the speedy replacement of our current fossil-fuel-dominated energy infrastructure and play a diminishing role in the decades ahead. This is Kevin Phillips’ point, and one I agree with strongly: if the U.S. is not sensitive enough to the role of energy resources in a nation’s global standing, its role can change over time . We should learn from history, not just repeat it.