Monday, February 02, 2009

Green Faith Day, 17 January, 2009

[I was on a panel for Green Faith Day, held in Tilehurst, a suburb of Reading, UK. One of the organizers has asked me to post my responses to the set questions we were given ahead of time.]

1. If there is one contribution Barack Obama could make at the beginning of his presidency to the global environmental challenges we face, what would it be?

I would like to begin by telling you a story about how rapidly people can reduce their consumption of energy if they have the right incentive. In Juneau, Alaska, where I live, our electricity comes from a hydroelectric plant about 40 miles south of town. The lines that carry the electricity cross some of the wildest and steepest terrain imaginable. This system is backed up by a diesel-fueled generator system in town.

Until last year we had been incredibly lucky. But in the late spring, an avalanche took out three of the towers that support the cables—this at a time when diesel was $5/gallon. No one knew how long it would take to repair the towers, and everyone was facing a five-fold increase in energy costs. As it turned out, the weather cooperated and we got the towers back online far more quickly than anyone anticipated. But what was even more interesting was the rapidity with which the populace, which has as many or more red-necks as conservationists, dropped its energy consumption. Within three weeks consumption had dropped by 30%. Some days it dropped as much as 50%. Of course, it was spring, the weather was warming up, and there was a lot of daylight. All the same, this example shows what people can do in terms of energy conservation if they put their minds to it.

I would like to see Obama introduce a form of creative energy rationing. Every household and business would be required to reduce its energy consumption by 30% over a reasonable period of time. This goal would be accomplished not only by cutting down on usage but also by having every household contributing to the energy grid by means of solar panels, and windpower. If a household contributed more than it used, it would be compensated according to the going rate. A household could go into credit. This sort of system is already up and running in a few places.

This program and structural modifications to properties would be financed in part by a heavy tax on windfall profits of big energy producers.

In addition, there would be deadlines for regions to reduce their auto traffic emissions by a similar percentage, forcing auto-makers to provide more energy-efficient vehicles, as well as forcing regions to create light rail, carpooling systems, and park-and-rides.


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