A time for our nation to embrace bold action on energy

August 22, 2008|By Lee M. Thomas

Last month, former Vice President Al Gore highlighted the triple threat embedded in our reliance on fossil fuels - the growing strains to our economy, our environment and our national security. He issued a ringing challenge to America's leaders to generate 100 percent of our electricity from energy sources with zero carbon emissions within 10 years. In the wake of that challenge, a chorus of voices sprang up to insist that the goal is unachievable, undesirable, even unfathomable. Surely, Mr. Gore's was the kind of challenge that invites controversy: succinct, dramatic and bold. Fortunately for America, the facts stand firmly on the side of action.

We face an unprecedented challenge to our way of life, but we also stand on the brink of tremendous opportunity. We stand to make great gains through a national effort based on conservation, a full commitment to renewable energy and pursuit of a range of energy options including nuclear power. If we don't move quickly to take the lead, we will have made a grave mistake.

In my more than 25 years working on environmental issues - including eight under President Ronald Reagan, six of those at the Environmental Protection Agency - I have seen the energy debate go from a low ebb when energy was cheap to a fever pitch when disasters and high gas prices raise the public's awareness. Today, the situation is different, and political winds should no longer determine our course of action. The technologies available 30 years ago were primitive compared with the wind turbines, solar cells and energy-saving systems we have now. These advances have been roundly endorsed by the world's investors, who are committing billions to clean technologies.

At the same time, the scientific case for acting immediately and with maximum effort to deal with climate change is crystal clear. The seriousness of the economic and national security issues related to our reliance on fossil fuels is also obvious.

Objections to Mr. Gore's proposal - and to renewable energy in general - amount to ignoring the plain facts, or to arguing that because it will be difficult, we should not try.

We need a national energy strategy with an aggressive timeline that reduces our dependence on fossil fuels, and we need it now. The course of action should include a national energy conservation effort, starting with energy-efficient buildings for all federal, state and local government offices. We should offer financial incentives to utility customers who reduce or become net producers of energy. We should support domestic auto manufacturers that produce fuel-efficient vehicles, and we must educate consumers about the benefits of affordable energy-efficiency measures. These measures could significantly reduce demand, making the clean electricity target even more viable. A clear goal backed by a detailed plan of action can also unleash the best in America's private sector.

Finally, we must have a coherent and safe plan for expanded nuclear power, including a comprehensive solution for waste disposal.

These suggestions are not perfect. The root of our problem, however, is not that we lack the answers, but that we have not yet committed to define and implement them. Only boldness will point the way forward, and boldness deserves all the support we as a people can muster.

Lee M. Thomas was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Ronald Reagan from 1985 to 1989. This article is distributed by McClatchy-Tribune.

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