Some in the environmental, civil rights and consumer rights activist community are disappointed and discouraged by the outcome of the 2007 legislative session in North Carolina, as Senate Bill 3 passed overwhelmingly, in both Houses of the General Assembly, with provisions to force ratepayers to assume the financial risk for the planning, preparation and construction of a new generation of dirty coal and nuclear power plants to meet “our growing energy demand.” I am angry. Anger is not an enviable mood, but sometimes it’s appropriate.
At a time when the world desperately needs to be taking a hard, fast turn toward energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy resources, North Carolina has chosen, at least for now, to go in the opposite direction.
It’s not accurate to place all fault with the energy corporations who essentially bought this decision by exercising political influence gained from distributing 1.7 million dollars in campaign contributions in the last two elections to almost every member of the General Assembly. These corporate giants are doing as expected, lobbying for their own interests, to maximize profits for their shareholders. More power sold means more profit. Larger generating capacity means the ability to sell more energy. Their business projections will show expected increases in energy consumption annually, with no end in sight. Planning for and projecting growth is what businesses do.
Nor is it fair to point at legislators as the primary target for blame, although they deserve their share for allowing themselves to be influenced in this way, stampeded into an ill-considered decision that has such profound implications for the health, economy and environment of the state. Each senator and representative is confronted with hundreds of bills each session to sift through or have explained to them by assistants. It’s impossible to read and understand everything. Unless they feel the ground shaking under their feet about a particular issue, legislators rely on the limited information their offices receive from lobbyists, the leadership of their Chamber, committees or political parties. Many, perhaps most of our elected representatives in Raleigh weren’t aware of the details of the sordid deal for which they voted. They were told and they believed this bill would ensure when their constituents flicked the switch, the lights would continue to come on. The details were unimportant.
The environmental community needs to look inward in sorting out what went wrong as the process it began quickly broke in an unintended direction. There were the two organizations who went over the deep end as partners in the “concensus”, becoming so invested in the process there was no safe way out, defending S3 to the end on the basis of the token Renewable and Efficiency Portfolio Standard, despite the overwhelming consequences of the Construction Work In Progress provisions that would ease the way for more polluting power plant construction and render any advances toward renewables and efficiency meaningless. But, with a few notable exceptions, the entire environmental community was willing to go along with this scheme from the beginning and bears the responsibility for the predictable S3 debacle. The same failed strategies continue to repeat themselves, yielding similar results every time, year after year. Groups allow themselves to be co-opted, moving allegiance from their principles to the process, becoming a part of the system that is perpetuating the problem. Social peer pressure restricts the ability to speak openly and truthfully, in this case about the nature and scope of change that is needed to confront poor air quality and global warming. Legislative proposals coming out of the environmental community are timid and unnecessarily compromising, tailored to what is believed to be the prevailing political wisdom, what would be acceptable in the political and social circles in which one travels. There is no attempt to change the political atmosphere to conform with scientific reality. There is only compromise after compromise until the diluted product is meaningless, or in this case worse than nothing at all, because it strengthens the hand of the coal and nuclear industries. The prevailing sentiment within the environmental community seems to be one of resignation that we live in a serfdom, so lets only try to accomplish what a group of serfs can do. Those who believe they are powerless are powerless, because they never even attempt to exercise the power that is inherent in a human being who speaks the truth and stands strongly behind her/his words. This process invariably results in micro-steps forward intermingled with backward motion netting a global environment that continues to degrade steadily as the years pass by. We can do much better. We have to do much more, rapidly.
The first thing we can do is start speaking the truth. No climate change action plan is realistic if it doesn’t incorporate a way to achieve a dramatic decrease in current levels of energy consumption rapidly. Yet, throughout the process resulting in S3 becoming a law, the environmental community, with a few notable exceptions, allowed and even fed into the notion that increases in energy consumption are inevitable, because population growth is inevitable. It is socially and politically uncomfortable to make the assertion that increased energy consumption is not inevitable. The energy industry’s powerful publicity machine has brow-beaten legislators, the news media and even most members of the environmental community into accepting the inevitability of increased energy consumption. Anyone who says otherwise runs the risk of being ostracized as an extremist, a “loose-cannon” or a dreamer. To illustrate this, the Clean Energy Coalition’s “White Paper” leading to S3, before the utility industry got its hands on it, assumed a 2% annual increase in energy consumption based on utility corporate projections. With its recommended 20% Renewable and Efficiency Portfolio Standard by the year 2021 this plan would have resulted in a net increase of 8% in “baseload” coal or nuclear produced energy consumption!
If we accept the premise that global energy consumption increase is inevitable, there is no hope of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change, because energy production is the single largest source of greenhouse gases. The current climate change crisis is a product of present and lower levels of energy consumption. In fact, the dreamer is the person who believes we can increase energy consumption as we solve global warming. With the scientific community giving us, at the outside, a window of twenty years to turn things around, in that time-frame, non-greenhouse gas producing renewable resources can only replace coal and nuclear power as the primary energy producers if we dramatically reduce energy consumption from current levels simultaneously. So, this is the conundrum. We have to speak the truth, even if it seems politically inexpedient to do so at the moment. Avoiding the raw truth is to avoid real solutions from ever surfacing, being debated and ultimately being enacted. Truth is powerful and will prevail, if we maintain consistency in reminding the public, the news media and elected officials about the facts surrounding climate change and the scale of change that is needed to address it on a global level. If our legislative proposals don’t reflect the scale and urgency of the climate change crisis, we are not speaking the truth. We are tailoring our message for what we believe to be short-term political expediency and that is self-defeating.
The goal of the environmental community can be nothing less than achieving dramatic and rapid global energy consumption reductions from today’s level. This has to be the message we shout from the hilltops, write in our press releases and repeat in the halls of local, state and federal government buildings.
There needs to be an energy strategy geared toward sufficient energy reductions to significantly impact global greenhouse gas production. This can only be accomplished through economics. Economics is the only force capable of driving meaningful social change. A very small percentage of the population will change the engrained habits of their lives just because it’s the right thing to do. But, almost everyone responds to the economics of the marketplace. By reversing utility rate structures, raising the price per kilowatt increasingly at different thresholds of use, a powerful economic incentive will be created for conservative energy-use, investment in energy efficient equipment and independent renewable energy systems. This should be at the top of the environmental community’s legislative agenda.
Another strong economic incentive for energy-use reduction would be a substantial “pollution fee” imposed on the purchase of all non-Energy Star electrical equipment.
Evaluating true costs of all energy options will be another powerful economic and political driver toward clean renewables and energy-use reduction. When the costs of health and environmental impact, the costs of full-fuel cycles and the costs of decommissioning of power plants are factored into the equation, solar-produced electricity, although the most expensive renewable option, is cheaper than either coal or nuclear power. A state-sponsored research project commissioned specifically to evaluate true costs will establish the truth in this statement once and for all. No licenses or permits will be granted for the construction of any new power plant unless it meets the least-cost critieria as defined by the research project findings. As a result of this policy, renewables will rapidly gain a larger share of overall energy production, no new polluting sources will be built, energy prices will rise causing further energy-use reductions, medical bills associated with pulmonary disease will likely decline as will health insurance premiums in response to an over-all reduction in air pollution-related illness.
These types of measures approach the scale of change that has to occur within the next decade if we’re sincere about our responsibility toward future generations. These proposals reflect the scale and urgency of the climate change crisis. Activity toward a conversion in paradigm to energy-use reductions and renewable resources has to be at the level of a nation at war. Resistance within the political process will be strong at first, but the truth behind the message is so powerful that it will prevail if the environmental community has the courage and determination to persist in delivering it until it’s heard by enough of the decision-makers to enact it.
The decision-makers will come on board one-by-one through a process of public pressure, economic pressure and common sense. There will be great public pressure because members of the grassroots who understand the dynamics of this ambitious proposal will become excited and active, generating a deep groundswell that will indeed be felt shaking under the feet of legislators and all elected officials. There will at first be public resistance and debate, but that’s a good thing because it will heighten the profile of the issue and bring it into the forefront of the public agenda. Energy issues will be reported on a daily basis by major newspapers and TV news shows educating the public on the realities associated with the climate change crisis and its relationship to energy-use. This debate has to happen sooner or later, so let it be sooner. The truth will prevail as more information reaches the public domain. When the entire population is saturated with the truth, the political pressure on lawmakers to act decisively will be irresistible.
This entire process will be galvanized when the environmental community takes a united stand in offering a dynamic legislative proposal that incorporates the measures mentioned above along with other economic drivers. It is this initial act of proposal that will spark both the public debate and the excitement within the grassroots community. What on earth are we waiting for?
Some within the environmental community of North Carolina have already signed onto the NC Energy Future Resolution (EFR), a document that outlines some of the steps that should be taken toward addressing the scale and urgency of the climate change crisis. But, most of the larger groups, primarily in the Triangle area of the state, squandered their limited resources this year by pushing the weak and rather meaningless strategy embodied in Senate Bill 3, while ignoring the much more profound strategy embodied by the Energy Future Resolution. After two years of prodding, so far we’ve only managed to get a badly diluted version of the EFR introduced in the General Assembly, a version for which it was hardly worth campaigning. The story will be different when the entire environmental community unites strongly behind this proposal or a similar one that embodies the same principles and steps. The full-strength EFR principles, introduced as legislation and backed by the entire environmental community, will create waves that rock every boat, shake up the political landscape and begin the process that will put us on the road to meeting our responsibility toward future generations.
In changing the energy paradigm toward renewables, conservation and efficiency, the biggest obstacle to overcome is not the energy industry’s opposition or the mindlessness of elected officials who make decisions. The biggest obstacle is the resistance of the environmental community’s leadership that has lost touch with its roots, the grassroots, and has become lost in the delusion that meaningful change can be affected through weak proposals and compromise with the industries and power brokers that have a vested interest in greater energy consumption. The biggest obstacle is the doubt that prevents us from awakening to our own empowerment and prevents us from asserting the truth as we see it and as the scientific community has related it to us. The results of numerous polls tell us that a large majority of the population wants strong government action to address climate change and air pollution. The environmental community needs to start acting like it represents the majority.