NDN Blog

Time to Lead on Energy and Climate

Buried in Wednesday’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll was this fact: 18 percent of Americans view energy and the cost of gas as the most important issues for the federal government to address. That number ranked third, behind the economy and the war in Iraq, and ten points ahead of health care. Add that to the 4 percent of Americans who see the environment and global warming and the environment as the number one issue, and 22 percent of Americans see some sort of energy concern as the most important federal issue.

Concern about the fact that only four percent see global warming as the most important issue notwithstanding, this is a welcome shift in political consciousness. The next step is for our leaders to explain why the top two issues, the economy and the war in Iraq, are actually related to energy and the cost of gas, and why confronting global warming relates to all three.

Unfortunately, political rhetoric and action is not yet where it needs to be on these issues. Instead of convincing dialogue about building a clean energy future that enhances energy and climate security, the American people get irresponsible talk from a supposedly pro-climate candidate about a gas tax holiday. The Senate debates cap and trade legislation, but won’t even extend the Solar Investment Tax Credit. Four dollar a gallon gasoline means that it is time to move forward to new sources of energy, not despair about the fact that the old ones aren’t working for us as well as we’d like.

High energy prices are here to stay, and the American people are struggling because of it. For now, it seems that many politicians are unwilling or unable to tell the American people that we have to innovate, not drill, out of this problem, and that there is no short-term solution.

Leadership means connecting the dots, from high energy prices, to climate change, to green collar jobs, to turmoil in the Middle East. It means realizing that four dollar a gallon gasoline is related to the Solar ITC. America is nowhere close to leading on energy, and the consequences will be grim should we take a pass on building the premier 21st century green economy. Thankfully, it seems that the market is taking hold. Companies like GM are starting to get the picture that we need to build plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt, and California is primed to install 200-250 Megawatts of solar in 2008 alone. Let’s hope political leadership can create the policy needed to support them.

Summer issue of Democracy out today

A new issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas came out today, with a number of compelling articles. Here's part of what I found in my inbox this morning, certainly worth a read:

In this issue, we continue this intellectual field work. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger take on the conventional wisdom and argue that to stop global warming we need to scrap Kyoto and the approach to emissions control it represents. Former Army Ranger and Iraq War veteran Andrew Exum details what happens when the jihadis from Iraq come marching home - and what we need to do to contain them. The Brookings Institution's Isabel Sawhill and Emily Monea write that we need a new intergenerational contract that shifts the focus of social policy from seniors to kids. And Josh Ruxin - a Columbia professor working in Rwanda - says that to solve the global public health problems we face today, we need not just Bill Gates' billions, but Microsoft's managers.

Ruxin's essay is part of a series of pieces in this issue that examines foreign policy challenges not at the heights of foreign ministries, but in the streets where real people live, work, and shape their countries' future. As the world's attention turns this summer to the Olympics in Beijing, Hu Ping - a Chinese democracy dissident - looks at what the Chinese really think about their leaders. Fawaz Gerges, of Sarah Lawrence College, looks at what Muslims think about the United States and Osama Bin Laden. And Johns Hopkins' Adam Sheingate looks at what's behind the soaring price of food and the implications for the future.

In other articles, retired Marine Colonel T.X. Hammes games out the future of warfare; Derek Chollet - former foreign policy advisor to John Edwards - assesses whether America is in decline or not; Penn's Kermit Roosevelt mulls over how judges think; Stanford's Henry Greely dissects the fear of genetic engineering; and Clay Risen argues that architects need to be careful who they build for.

Democracy seems to be constantly coming up with provocative articles and fascinating ideas. I highly recommend taking a look at their new issue.

Americans feel the burn of high energy prices

High energy prices are proving a threat to the American way of life as they become an increasingly large share of how Americans spend their incomes. In today’s New York Times, Clifford Krauss writes about the impact of gas prices on rural communities:

Gasoline prices reached a national average of $4 a gallon for the first time over the weekend, adding more strain to motorists across the country.

But the pain is not being felt uniformly. Across broad swaths of the South, Southwest and the upper Great Plains, the combination of low incomes, high gas prices and heavy dependence on pickup trucks and vans is putting an even tighter squeeze on family budgets.

Here in the Mississippi Delta, some farm workers are borrowing money from their bosses so they can fill their tanks and get to work. Some are switching jobs for shorter commutes.

People are giving up meat so they can buy fuel. Gasoline theft is rising. And drivers are running out of gas more often, leaving their cars by the side of the road until they can scrape together gas money.

The disparity between rural America and the rest of the country is a matter of simple home economics. Nationwide, Americans are now spending about 4 percent of their take-home income on gasoline. By contrast, in some counties in the Mississippi Delta, that figure has surpassed 13 percent.

Additionally, a new poll from CNN found that:

As more Americans become resigned to the possibility of paying $5 for a gallon for gas, they are driving less and seriously considering chucking their gas guzzlers, according to a poll released Monday.

These rising costs, along with rising healthcare costs and dropping wages, have the potential to widen gaps in the American economy and radically impact the way Americans live their lives. Reducing gas prices in the short terms is difficult, if not impossible, and there are far more bad ideas about how to do this than there are good ones. John McCain has come back to one of his worst, the gas tax holiday, which is impressive for its overt pandering and lack of foundation in economics. Americans need a sound energy policy and are currently feeling the burn from lacking a forward thinking one for the last eight years.

Obama launching economy tour

Courtesy of Mark Halperin's "The Page," Barack Obama is set to kick off a two week "Change that Works for You" economic tour. He will kick off the tour with a speech in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Obama will travel across the country, talking to Americans about how the economy affects their everyday lives. He’ll hold events with voters where they work and where they live, discussing the challenges we face and his plans to turn the economy around.

This move is a necessary first step for Obama as he pivots toward the general election. With new unemployment numbers showing the biggest increase in job loss in 22 years (up to 5.5 percent, 49,000 jobs lost in May), Americans are clearly ready for a new economic agenda. We are excited to hear about Obama's vision for the economy, and will be following his tour closely.

McCain to Skip Climate Vote

In the Washington Post, Julia Eilperin today covered John McCain's announcement that he will miss next week's key vote on Lieberman-Warner climate change legislation. This is the same John McCain who has been giving speeches and running ads for the last month about climate change and has been attempting to draw distinctions between himself and President Bush on this issue (since he is out of other issues - from immigration to Iraq).

From "The Trail," check out John McCain's reasons for missing the next week's vote:

In a press conference late Wednesday afternoon, McCain said he did not support the bill sponsored by two of his closest allies, Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) because it doesn't offer enough aid to the nuclear industry, and he would not come to the floor to vote on it.

"I have not been there for a number of votes. The same thing happened in the campaign of 2000," he said. "The people of Arizona understand I'm running for president."

Some problems with his reasons for opposing and failing to vote on the bill:

  1. The nuclear industry has received and continues to receive some of the most generous subsidies in the history of energy subsidies. Aside from that fact, additional legislation, similar in form to the energy bill passed last year, is a more than capable venue for further subsidizing nuclear energy. The point of this bill is to put a price on carbon emissions, which, by making fossil fuels relatively more expensive, would help nuclear. This objection to the legislation is manufactured and asinine.
  2. Lieberman and Warner are two of McCain's biggest supporters. Lieberman goes on the road with McCain quite a bit. Do they disagree on this vastly important issue that McCain has chosen to make a centerpiece of his campaign?
  3. McCain claims that the "people of Arizona understand" he is running for President. John McCain is running for President of the United States. His actions in the United States Senate, just over seven months before he would be President, should represent the best interests of every state, not just the 6 million people of Arizona. This attitude is un-Presidential, to say the least.

Time and time again, the wheels have fallen of the Straight Talk Express. This time, it is on the last issue McCain had to distinguish himself from an incredibly unpopular President. By failing to vote for this legislation, McCain should no longer have the latitude to claim confronting climate change as central piece of his platform, and the media's "maverick" tag for the Republican nominee should probably be put to rest.

New Politics in China: Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on Facebook

Following the massive earthquake in China, there was much discussion of the new media and communications technology that Chinese were using to spread news and opinions about the earthquake and the response to it. It seems that this earthquake and the use of this new media and new political tools has lead to the emergence of a new politics in China. From Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed in the New York Times last week:

In the aftermath of the great Sichuan earthquake, we've seen a hopeful glimpse of China’s future: a more open and self-confident nation, and maybe — just maybe — the birth of grass-roots politics here.

In traveling around China in the days after the quake, I was struck by how the public and the news media initially seized the initiative from the government. Ordinary Chinese are traveling to the quake zone to help move rubble, and tycoons, peasants and even children are reaching into their pockets to donate to the victims.

"I gave 500 yuan," or about $72, a man told me in the western city of Urumqi. "Eighty percent of the people in my work unit made donations. Everybody wants to help."

Private Chinese donations have already raised more than $500 million. That kind of bottom-up public spirit is a mark of citizens, not subjects.

This political cycle in America, the Obama campaign has revolutionized fundraising through the internet by enlisting supporters as partners in the campaign, not just voters. Just as American politics has changed, so too are Chinese taking politics into their own hands through individual giving. As Kristof argues, China is going through a fundamental change, as its people think of themselves as "citizens, not subjects." Kristof continues:

China may claim to be Marxist-Leninist, but it’s really market-Leninist. The rise of wealth, a middle class, education and international contacts are slowly undermining one-party rule and nurturing a new kind of politics.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is hard-working and blessed with nearly a photographic memory, but he also may be the second-most boring person alive (after his boss, President Hu Jintao). Both Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen rose through the system as classic Communist apparatchiks — Brezhnevs with Chinese faces. Yet Mr. Wen has seen the political landscape changing and has struggled recently to reinvent himself. When the earthquake hit, Mr. Wen flew immediately to the disaster area and appeared constantly on television, overseeing rescue operations.

Heroic tidbits seeped out. Mr. Wen fell and cut himself but refused medical attention. He bellowed directions to generals over the telephone and then slammed the handset down. He shouted to children buried in a pile of rubble: "This is Grandpa Wen Jiabao. Children, you’ve got to hold on!"

Mr. Wen’s conduct is striking because it’s what we expect of politicians, not dictators. His aim was to come across as a "good emperor," not to win an election. But presumably he behaved in this way partly because he felt the hot breath of public opinion on his neck.

Yesterday, the world (and Mike, who tipped me off to this) was shocked to find Prime Minister Wen on Facebook. That’s right, facebook.com, the social networking site started by Harvard students and spread through America’s universities, is now impacting Chinese politics. As of this posting, Wen had just surpassed 16,000 supporters.

China's transition from a compltely closed society in the three decades ago to one in which individuals are coming together to develop civil society - in large part with the help of these new tools - is indicative of broader change happening in that country. Kristof predicts that within two decades, the Chinese Communist party will transition to a "a Social Democratic Party that dominates the country but that grudgingly allows opposition victories and a free press." Indeed, there is already evidence of this in the aftermath of the earthquake, as the Chinese government realizes a free but professional press is of great use to them in that it provides important services that free-wheeling and unaccountable media cannot.

In this short period of time since the US chose to normalize trade relations with China, there has been much improvement in economic freedom. China's economy is moving toward a free market model and many sectors are extremely entrepreneurial and open. There can be no doubt that the liberalization of relations with the west and the opening of China and its markets to American goods, services, and ideas has worked. Time will tell if a market of ideas, that ultimately leads to a more democratic and liberal China, takes hold, even if that process does begin on Facebook.

Bush: Americans can send cell phones to Cuba

Following up on recent work on the power of mobile communications in the developing world, the Bush Administration has provided an important step on this issue in its Cuba policy. Americans will be allowed to purchase and pay bills for cell phones that they can ship to Cuba.

From yesterday’s New York Times article by Sheryl Gay Stolberg:

President Bush announced Wednesday that Americans would soon be allowed to give their relatives in Cuba cell phones to use. The move is intended to challenge Cuba’s new leader, Raul Castro, to make good on his promises of reform, by giving ordinary Cubans more freedom to communicate with one another and the outside world.

"If the Cuban people can be trusted with mobile phones, they should be trusted to speak freely in public," Mr. Bush said, during a White House ceremony attended by dozens of Cuban-Americans, including the families of imprisoned dissidents. He added, "The world is watching the Cuban regime."Since Mr. Castro succeeded his ailing 81-year-old brother, Fidel, in February, he has initiated a series of changes in the country, including opening up access to cell phones, computers and DVD players.

But most Cubans cannot afford to buy such luxuries, Mr. Bush said, so the policy changes have amounted so far to "nothing more than a cruel joke perpetuated on a long-suffering people." He added, "If the Cuban regime is serious about improving life for the Cuban people, it will take steps necessary to make these changes meaningful."

We at NDN applaud this move by the Bush administration, but the fact is that this move is far too little in terms of broader Cuba policy. It is a positive development that the administration is on board with mobile communications as a tool to advance human rights. The lessons from China and Egypt, among others, are too significant to ignore.

Food, energy, and electoral politics

In case you missed them, here are a few must read articles from the last few days:

From Center on Foreign Relations Economist Sebastian Mallaby’s strongly worded op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled “Rice and Baloney:”

We are now several months into the global food crisis, which is a much bigger deal than the subprime meltdown for most people in the world. Food prices have almost doubled in three years, threatening to push 100 million people into absolute poverty, undoing much of the development progress of the past few years. The new hunger has triggered riots from Haiti to Egypt to Ethiopia, threatening political stability; it has conjured up a raft of protectionist policies, threatening globalization. And yet the response to this crisis from governments the world over has been lackadaisical or worse.

The governments of the world are conspiring to undermine farming in developing countries. Do they mean to inflict hunger on tens of millions of people?

The New York TimesAndrew Revkin, in response to an article from Sunday’s Times by Keith Bradsher and Andrew Martin, draws a parallel between incredibly low funding for both agricultural development assistance and basic research and dropping funding, from the federal government and private sources, for basic energy research.

In Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle, UC Berkeley professor Dan Kammen lays out the challenges that that policy makers must confront on climate change:

Over the next five decades, progress to meaningfully address the risk of significant climate change will require an estimated 80 percent - or greater - reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. The United States and China together account for almost half of all greenhouse gas emissions, so the work needs to begin here.

At the same time, no nation is better positioned to adopt a low-carbon energy diet than we are. The United States not only has tremendous clean energy resources, but it has major companies looking to take advantage of a change in federal policy to compete in the global clean energy economy. The United States must mobilize the world's largest R&D if we are to address climate change.

The central challenge of the 21st century will be to replace the vast fossil-fuel infrastructure with a new economy based on low-carbon technologies. The issue on the table is the need to finance clean energy research programs and to build markets where low-carbon technologies are rewarded. In other words, we must begin to price pollution.

Finally, Matt Bai’s column in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine examines John McCain’s foreign policy, support for the war, and his relationships with fellow Vietnam War veterans in the Senate, and, on Salon, pollster Paul Maslin takes an early look at the electoral math for Barack Obama.

New Media informs Chinese quake response

In the wake of the catastrophic earthquake in central China last week, the western media has reported on the role that new media – blogs, mobile phones, and instant messages – have played in communicating news of the earthquake around China. These communications mark a vast change in the flow of information surrounding a disaster from previous disasters in China.

From Cara Anna of the Associated Press:

Almost nonstop, the uncensored opinions of Chinese citizens are popping up online, sent by text and instant message across a country shaken by its worst earthquake in three decades.

"Why were most of those killed in the earthquake children?" one post asked Thursday on FanFou, a microblogging site.

"How many donations will really reach the disaster area? This is doubtful," read another.

China is now home to the world's largest number of Internet and mobile phone users, and their hunger for quake news is forcing the government to let information flow in ways it hasn't before.

A fast-moving network of text messages, instant messages and blogs has been a powerful source of firsthand accounts of the disaster, as well as pleas for help and even passionate criticism of rescue efforts.

"I don't want to use the word transparent, but it's less censored, an almost free flow of discussion," said Xiao Qiang, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the China Internet Project, which monitors and translates Chinese Web sites.

China is well known for controlling the flow of information.

"We didn't know that hundreds of thousands of lives passed away during the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 until many years after the disaster took place," sociologist Zheng Yefu said in a commentary last week in the Southern Metropolis News.

But word about Monday's magnitude 7.9 quake spread quickly on Web sites and microblogging services, in which users share short bursts of information through text and instant messages. The services also publish the messages online.

"It all depends on the users; we don't edit it," FanFou founder Wang Xin said. "We just gather their words together."

A string of crises over the last few months — including crippling snowstorms and Tibetan protests — has taught the government a few lessons, Berkeley's Xiao said.

Government officials held a rare, real-time online exchange with ordinary Chinese on Friday to answer angry questions about why so many schools collapsed in the quake.

"They understand better now that to react slowly or to cover up in the Internet age is a bad idea," Xiao said in a telephone interview.

But the government is still monitoring the online conversation. Seventeen people have been detained since the earthquake, warned or forced to write apologies for online messages that "spread false information, made sensational statements and sapped public confidence," the state-run news agency, Xinhua, reported Thursday.

Even as recently as the SARS crisis, the Chinese government did not seem to understand the beneficial role of an uncensored press. Instead of allowing the media to report on the public health crisis, Chinese officials censored reports of the disease. This new media, particularly text messages via mobile communications devices, exist in great degree outside of the government’s ability to censor. NDN has written about the impact these devices are having on Chinese political movements and the power of mobile bring about major societal changes – from governance to public health.

The impact that these mobile phones has on communications in China will be far reaching. The Chinese government has been realizing that a free(er) press and communications flow serves an important role in distributing reliable information in the wake of disasters. While the blogging and texting has been valuable, rumors circulated wildly in these unrestricted media. The introduction of these technologies to the information market in China will have a profound effect on its openness going forward, as new media will doubtless improve both government responsiveness and the ability of, and necessity for, traditional media to function.

McCain talks climate

John McCain has a new ad up and is giving a speech today in Oregon on climate change, a signature distinction that he likes to draw between himself and President Bush. McCain’s strategy on this issue is to try to position himself as a moderate, and this will be a key issue for him to build his maverick image upon.

Take a look at the new ad:

This ad places McCain in the middle on climate and strikes at others as being "extreme," presumably mainstream Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. Look for more messaging like this out of the McCain team as the campaigns move into general election mode and McCain tries to neutralize climate change as an issue for the Democrats as he hunts for the middle that he will need to win in November.

McCain’s plan, which David Roberts at Grist calls "better than expected but behind the curve," is part of an important moment in American politics, as it means that the next president will surely do something about Climate Change. It is important to remember, however, that the something on climate all the candidates offer is not the same.

Update: Today's Washington Post features an excellent article by Julie Eilperin entitled "Environmental Stances Are Balancing Act for McCain." A sample:

But an examination of McCain's voting record shows an inconsistent approach to the environment: He champions some "green" causes while casting sometimes contradictory votes on others.

The senator from Arizona has been resolute in his quest to impose a federal limit on greenhouse gas emissions, even when it means challenging his own party. But he has also cast votes against tightening fuel-efficiency standards and resisted requiring public utilities to offer a specific amount of electricity from renewable sources. He has worked to protect public lands in his home state, winning a 2001 award from the National Parks Conservation Association for helping give the National Park Service some say over air tours around the Grand Canyon, work that prompts former interior secretary and Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt to call him "a great friend of the canyon." But he has also pushed to set aside Endangered Species Act protections when they conflict with other priorities, such as the construction of a University of Arizona observatory on Mount Graham. 

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