The Peak Oil Crisis: Memorandum for the President-Elect
by Tom Whipple, retired CIA analyst, columnist for the Falls Church (VA) News-Press, and editor of Peak Oil Review. Published November 6, 2008
The way things are shaping up, in less than three months you will be in charge of solving the direst set of crises since the ones faced by Lincoln back in 1861.
In every corner of the world economies are coming unglued. Our major financial institutions are approaching insolvency; unemployment is rising; public confidence in nearly every institution is collapsing; investments and savings are tanking; and to make matters worse, these forces seem to be simultaneously engulfing all the other nations of the world. There clearly are big changes just ahead and probably not for the better – at least not right away.
In sorting through the morass you soon will confront the old conundrum of the urgent vs. the important. From all directions crises are going to come at you. There are wars to settle; frozen finances and plunging markets; shortages and world adversaries seeking advantages. The list of the extremely urgent can only grow and grow for the world has become a populous, complex and interconnected place.
Beyond the obviously urgent, however, come the truly important – the problems that cannot be muddled through or solved quickly with borrowed money. Global warming and methane burps, the social security/Medicare shortfall, evaporation of retirement savings, depletion of easy-to-exploit oil deposits and perhaps a life threatening pandemic or two are examples of the truly important.
Right at the top of the truly important list, and more urgent than you probably realize, is to start the transition of the U.S. economy from fossil fuels – oil, coal, and natural gas – to renewable forms of energy as quickly as possible. If this does not start happening soon, then much of the U.S. and world economy is likely to start grinding to a halt well within the eight years you would like to remain in office. Moreover, if we rush to burn off all the remaining fossil fuel, primarily coal, in the name of economic recovery and growth, the world is likely to end up in a couple of centuries – and here opinions differ – anywhere from an unpleasant place to live to being nearly devoid of the higher forms of life.
We have heard all sorts of talk about energy independence in recent months usually coupled with calls for more domestic drilling, “clean-coal” or more ethanol. Such talk is meaningless since we are almost certain to become energy independent in the next decade or so simply because we won’t be receiving most of the 12 million barrels of crude and oil products a day we are currently importing. They just won’t be for sale, at least not to us.
There clearly has to be some sort of powerful incentive to get your administration, the Congress and the rest of the world’s governments moving more quickly on the transition to a post fossil fuels world. At the minute, the only incentive on the horizon that seems able to get everybody’s attention is high gasoline prices and actual shortages. Earlier this year we were getting close to taking action when oil was pushing $150 a barrel and the campaigns could talk of little else. However the perturbations of the financial crisis intervened and gasoline went back down to last year’s prices.
Nothing stands still these days so by the time you are inaugurated it is a good bet that the OPEC cartel will have managed to cut production enough to start driving prices upwards again, perhaps not to $150, but perhaps enough to get people’s attention and raise fears of inflationary pressures .
Sometime during your first year in office, your new Secretary of Energy is likely to come by and lay out the problem for you – world oil production is going down – perhaps faster than imagined; world oil exports are dropping even faster; prices are rising; and new domestic supplies will never make up the difference. The bottom line will be that the country is going to have to get along with steadily decreasing amounts of oil each year for the foreseeable future and that much will have to change if the economy is to continue to function.
It may take some time before you appreciate all the consequences of oil depletion. They will be everywhere. Transportation costs will go much higher. The GDP will slide. Jobs will disappear, and shortages will develop. At some point there will be a general agreement that looking for more fossil fuels or that a large scale effort to convert coal to liquid fuel is hopeless. A massive overhaul of the U.S. economy including transportation, lifestyles, jobs, agriculture, and industrial production will be necessary if we are going to continue running a civilization with declining quantities of fossil fuel.
This national epiphany will be the beginning of the great transition that will dominate the U.S. government and the world for many decades. New governmental organizations, policies, and procedures will be necessary to effect the transition for it will involve nearly every aspect of modern life. Do not be tempted by the notion that the markets alone can deal with this transition. A few minutes’ reflection on what will be involved in forced reductions in the use of fossil fuels while still maintaining social order and some semblance of 20th century lifestyles will lead to the realization that this can only be accomplished by government coordination. We are no longer in the 19th century living on scattered self-sufficient farms. There are 300 million of us in the United States today, and we are totally, utterly, completely dependent on fossil fuels for our being.
The challenge just ahead is going to be the greatest since the Republic was founded. It will dwarf the challenges of the War Between the States, the Great Depression and World War II and will test your leadership to the utmost.
An opportunity in energy policy – a letter to the President-elect
by John Langhus and Steve Andrews
Dear President-elect Obama,
We believe that no other challenge we currently face will be adequately addressed unless we are successful in tackling our energy challenges. Based on recognition of the fundamental change that has taken place in global energy markets, critical elements of a new approach to energy policy are set out below.
1. Smart Energy Management is the Real Policy Challenge. American policy makers have long assumed unimpeded access to ever greater supplies of inexpensive energy. Energy policy has thus rarely played a prominent part in electoral politics (except temporarily, during transient shocks). The energy challenge we now face will change that. A tripling of energy prices since 2002 has not stemmed the decline rate in existing fields, nor brought on appreciable new supply. Worse, the recent tumbling of oil and gas prices means that many planned energy expansion projects will be mothballed or delayed, leading to higher prices and supply vulnerability down the road.
In painful fits and starts, the American public is becoming aware of the role of energy cost and availability in their daily lives. Leaders and policymakers must demonstrate an awareness of our new energy reality. From today forward, every policy maker should consider the availability and cost of energy in nearly every policy calculation. They must propose sensible changes that our government can make now, even as traditional forms of energy gradually become less accessible and dramatically more expensive.
A powerful start would feature an announcement that recognizes this fundamental shift, and proposes the following in response: In the newly elected administration, every political department and regulatory agency will assign a senior deputy to consider the energy implications of all policy decisions. The model would be budget accounting, but in energy terms. That is, government would be required to assume that energy will eventually be increasingly scarce, increasingly expensive, or both, and to plan accordingly. The approach offers the benefit of being proactive while easily unwound if and when our national energy situation improves. If we have any hope of effectively managing the energy paradigm shift, it must be coordinated wisely and comprehensively.
2. Government must lead the Energy Transition. Over the coming years we must prepare for the declining availability of refined liquid petroleum fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and fuel oil in three general ways. First, we can reduce our total energy consumption through conservation and efficiency, beginning with a federal gasoline tax that incentivizes carpooling, highly fuel-efficient vehicles and all low or no carbon alternatives. Second, we can facilitate the development and adoption of renewable energy sources that provide more usable energy than is required to produce that energy in the first place. Third, we can ensure that we make responsible and effective use of domestic U.S. energy resources.
All three of these paths will require major investments in technology and infrastructure. Only the Federal Government can provide the leadership, R&D funding, and targeted incentives to private industry and individuals necessary to deliver us a responsible sustainable energy future.
3. Offshore Drilling – Move to the Real Debate. We do not know whether there are sufficient recoverable resources in “new” offshore locations on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to make the environmental and other trade-offs worth the incremental amount of available energy. The US Minerals and Management Service estimates that total “technically recoverable” yet-to-be-discovered oil throughout the OCS may be as much as 85 billion barrels of oil. Of that amount, less than 20 billion barrels is estimated to be in areas covered by the former drilling moratorium.
In truth, no one has any reliable data. A wise and bold response to this fact would be for the federal government to sponsor a massive seismic data acquisition project for the OCS. Seismic data holds the promise of providing real information upon which informed decisions may be made. In any event, seismic data acquisition will take place before any exploration drilling occurs – modern exploration rarely occurs without the benefit of seismic data acquisition beforehand. The government would fund and manage the program via contractors, and it would focus on the most promising areas for potential hydrocarbon exploration. The government would thus also own the resulting data exclusively, allowing it later to recoup the cost of the acquisition by selling the data to interested companies if and when drilling commences. It would be a significant research project of obvious utility.
4. Windfall Profit Taxes/Energy Rebates send the wrong economic signals. These may be the most self-defeating policy proposals available to address our energy challenges. Taxes on “windfall” profits would reduce domestic production, while a credit (or rebate) to consumers would stimulate consumption.
Much wiser would be to place an effective floor on oil prices to protect investments in alternative energy. The value of past investments by the energy industry in very promising technologies has been decimated when the price of petroleum has fallen and rendered the alternatives uneconomical. This has been the single greatest barrier to the development of a viable alternative energy industry. Likewise, the domestic US oil industry was ravaged in the 1980s, and again in the 1990s, when increased foreign production reduced the price of oil to single digits per-barrel, with the related consequences of the SUV boom and the nearly complete abandonment of conservation and efficiency efforts. Many investors fear a similar outcome when the recent oil price boom finally hits bottom. An oil price floor could be enforced through a tariff on imported oil that falls to zero when the market price of oil is at or above $100. Tariff receipts could fund basic research into alternative energy technologies. The result would be predictability for domestic energy industry investments in new oil production, and for private capital investments in alternative technologies.
5. Revitalize US Rail Networks. In the decades before car ownership became widespread, US cities and towns had extensive rail, streetcar and trolley networks. Sensible energy policy will recognize that the unrestrained use of millions of barrels of oil per day in the U.S. for personal transportation, while worldwide demand grows and supply remains flat, is coming to an end. The technology exists to recreate these former local and regional rail networks to relieve pressure on the oil supply created by personal transportation. A similar effort with respect to heavy rail will likewise ease the burden created by the current movement of goods by truck. The best available evidence is that sustained oil prices beyond the $150/barrel level could render regional air travel forever unprofitable. In such case, regional rail networks will be essential to maintain the economic viability of thousands of small communities throughout the country. In order to enhance our rail system in spite of reduced liquid fuel availability, we should promote the development of electrified rail systems.
6. Reduce Subsidies for Biofuels and Ethanol. The declining availability of oil will create a critical need for alternative liquid fuels to power our road and airborne fleets. U.S. oil production provides roughly 15 calories of useful energy for every calorie spent on production. Corn ethanol production only supplies 1.3 calories of energy for every calorie invested. Corn ethanol’s enormous comparative disadvantage hasn’t changed substantially despite decades of development and subsidies. It isn’t up to the task at hand.
Biofuels – and corn ethanol specifically – currently contribute more to our energy and other problems than they solve. While the lobbies in favor of ethanol and related subsidies are strong and entrenched, government must gradually abandon these subsidies. A far better policy would be a massive increase in public investment in basic science research.
Government is notoriously poor at “picking winners” – requiring the adoption of certain energy technologies over others, for example. What government has consistently done very well over many decades is to support basic research into new technologies, then allow the marketplace to choose the favorites.
7. Energy is Economic and National Security. Political leaders of every party do increasingly understand the clear relationship between energy and national security. The best evidence suggests that access to foreign sources of oil is already coming under strain and that competition among oil importers will only grow more intense as time goes on. In this respect, the US finds itself far behind China in particular in terms of securing long-term access to the next generation of fossil fuel resources. To take an example close to home, the production of oil by Mexico is falling at an alarming pace. Mexico is our third or fourth (depending on the month) largest source of imported oil. Oil exports contribute more than a third of the Mexican federal government’s revenues. On current trends, Mexico will cease to export any oil at all by 2012. Such an event poses a risk to our energy security, to Mexico’s economic security, and poses stark national security challenges to both countries. The American people will enjoy neither economic nor national security until we have adopted a comprehensively new approach to our public and private use of energy.
We offer this policy brief in the hopes of initiating a true national conversation about energy.
John Langhus works in the oil industry and is the lead author of this policy paper. Steve Andrews is a co-founder of ASPO-USA.
The Climate for Change By Al Gore
November 9, 2008, published by the New York Times
The inspiring and transformative choice by the American people to elect Barack Obama as our 44th president lays the foundation for another fateful choice that he – and we – must make this January to begin an emergency rescue of human civilization from the imminent and rapidly growing threat posed by the climate crisis.
The electrifying redemption of America’s revolutionary declaration that all human beings are born equal sets the stage for the renewal of United States leadership in a world that desperately needs to protect its primary endowment: the integrity and livability of the planet.
The world authority on the climate crisis, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, after 20 years of detailed study and four unanimous reports, now says that the evidence is “unequivocal.” To those who are still tempted to dismiss the increasingly urgent alarms from scientists around the world, ignore the melting of the north polar ice cap and all of the other apocalyptic warnings from the planet itself, and who roll their eyes at the very mention of this existential threat to the future of the human species, please wake up. Our children and grandchildren need you to hear and recognize the truth of our situation, before it is too late.
Here is the good news: the bold steps that are needed to solve the climate crisis are exactly the same steps that ought to be taken in order to solve the economic crisis and the energy security crisis.
Economists across the spectrum – including Martin Feldstein and Lawrence Summers – agree that large and rapid investments in a jobs-intensive infrastructure initiative is the best way to revive our economy in a quick and sustainable way. Many also agree that our economy will fall behind if we continue spending hundreds of billions of dollars on foreign oil every year. Moreover, national security experts in both parties agree that we face a dangerous strategic vulnerability if the world suddenly loses access to Middle Eastern oil.
As Abraham Lincoln said during America’s darkest hour, “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” In our present case, thinking anew requires discarding an outdated and fatally flawed definition of the problem we face.
Thirty-five years ago this past week, President Richard Nixon created Project Independence, which set a national goal that, within seven years, the United States would develop “the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy sources.” His statement came three weeks after the Arab oil embargo had sent prices skyrocketing and woke America to the dangers of dependence on foreign oil. And – not coincidentally – it came only three years after United States domestic oil production had peaked.
At the time, the United States imported less than a third of its oil from foreign countries. Yet today, after all six of the presidents succeeding Nixon repeated some version of his goal, our dependence has doubled from one-third to nearly two-thirds – and many feel that global oil production is at or near its peak.
Some still see this as a problem of domestic production. If we could only increase oil and coal production at home, they argue, then we wouldn’t have to rely on imports from the Middle East. Some have come up with even dirtier and more expensive new ways to extract the same old fuels, like coal liquids, oil shale, tar sands and “clean coal” technology.
But in every case, the resources in question are much too expensive or polluting, or, in the case of “clean coal,” too imaginary to make a difference in protecting either our national security or the global climate. Indeed, those who spend hundreds of millions promoting “clean coal” technology consistently omit the fact that there is little investment and not a single large-scale demonstration project in the United States for capturing and safely burying all of this pollution. If the coal industry can make good on this promise, then I’m all for it. But until that day comes, we simply cannot any longer base the strategy for human survival on a cynical and self-interested illusion.
Here’s what we can do – now: we can make an immediate and large strategic investment to put people to work replacing 19th-century energy technologies that depend on dangerous and expensive carbon-based fuels with 21st-century technologies that use fuel that is free forever: the sun, the wind and the natural heat of the earth.
What follows is a five-part plan to repower America with a commitment to producing 100 percent of our electricity from carbon-free sources within 10 years. It is a plan that would simultaneously move us toward solutions to the climate crisis and the economic crisis – and create millions of new jobs that cannot be outsourced.
First, the new president and the new Congress should offer large-scale investment in incentives for the construction of concentrated solar thermal plants in the Southwestern deserts, wind farms in the corridor stretching from Texas to the Dakotas and advanced plants in geothermal hot spots that could produce large amounts of electricity.
Second, we should begin the planning and construction of a unified national smart grid for the transport of renewable electricity from the rural places where it is mostly generated to the cities where it is mostly used. New high-voltage, low-loss underground lines can be designed with “smart” features that provide consumers with sophisticated information and easy-to-use tools for conserving electricity, eliminating inefficiency and reducing their energy bills. The cost of this modern grid – $400 billion over 10 years – pales in comparison with the annual loss to American business of $120 billion due to the cascading failures that are endemic to our current balkanized and antiquated electricity lines.
Third, we should help America’s automobile industry (not only the Big Three but the innovative new startup companies as well) to convert quickly to plug-in hybrids that can run on the renewable electricity that will be available as the rest of this plan matures. In combination with the unified grid, a nationwide fleet of plug-in hybrids would also help to solve the problem of electricity storage. Think about it: with this sort of grid, cars could be charged during off-peak energy-use hours; during peak hours, when fewer cars are on the road, they could contribute their electricity back into the national grid.
Fourth, we should embark on a nationwide effort to retrofit buildings with better insulation and energy-efficient windows and lighting. Approximately 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States come from buildings – and stopping that pollution saves money for homeowners and businesses. This initiative should be coupled with the proposal in Congress to help Americans who are burdened by mortgages that exceed the value of their homes.
Fifth, the United States should lead the way by putting a price on carbon here at home, and by leading the world’s efforts to replace the Kyoto treaty next year in Copenhagen with a more effective treaty that caps global carbon dioxide emissions and encourages nations to invest together in efficient ways to reduce global warming pollution quickly, including by sharply reducing deforestation.
Of course, the best way – indeed the only way – to secure a global agreement to safeguard our future is by re-establishing the United States as the country with the moral and political authority to lead the world toward a solution.
Looking ahead, I have great hope that we will have the courage to embrace the changes necessary to save our economy, our planet and ultimately ourselves.
In an earlier transformative era in American history, President John F. Kennedy challenged our nation to land a man on the moon within 10 years. Eight years and two months later, Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. The average age of the systems engineers cheering on Apollo 11 from the Houston control room that day was 26, which means that their average age when President Kennedy announced the challenge was 18.
This year similarly saw the rise of young Americans, whose enthusiasm electrified Barack Obama’s campaign. There is little doubt that this same group of energized youth will play an essential role in this project to secure our national future, once again turning seemingly impossible goals into inspiring success.
Al Gore, the vice president from 1993 to 2001, was the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. He founded the Alliance for Climate Protection and, as a businessman, invests in alternative energy companies.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
Environmental leaders offer their elevator pitches for Obama
November 5, 2008
Grist Magazine (Gristmill.org) asked a number of leaders in environment and sustainability issues to imagine they found themselves in an elevator with the president-elect — giving them one minute of his undivided attention. Here are their messages to Obama about how he should approach environment, energy, and climate policy:
Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco:
“Where the Bush Administration has failed in the last eight years, you must lead. In your first 100 days, begin implementing a detailed, achievable plan to establish America as the world’s leader in the fight against climate change. By investing in energy independence, you will rebuild the American economy and rid our dependence on foreign oil. Move from the common rhetoric of creating a green revolution in America to achieving results:
Follow-through on your promise to invest $150 billion in clean-technology infrastructure, research, and development (and consider increasing this level of investment). Infrastructure should focus on modernizing our national power grid to make it more efficient and allow new renewable energy projects to feed into that grid. R&D funding should flow to our nation’s universities and scientific institutions to develop new energy-efficiency and renewable-energy technologies, such as ocean power, that can be further advanced through the marketplace.
Establish aggressive new national efficiency standards for buildings, cars, and appliances. We’ve done this in California over the past two decades and have witnessed no change in per capita energy usage amidst explosive economic growth.
Recognize the true price of greenhouse-gas pollution by creating an aggressive cap-and-trade system or carbon tax that will make renewable energy competitive with polluting fossil-fuel-burning technologies.
Organize a bilateral energy summit with China that establishes both countries as leaders in the developed and developing world toward growing national economies while reducing the environmental impact.
Ensure that clean-energy investment benefits all Americans by creating green-collar job requirements as a pre-condition to any federal funding of infrastructure, research, and development.
Support cities’ impressive climate protection efforts through technical assistance and resources for programs such as energy-efficiency retrofits in low-income housing.”
Bill McKibben, author, climate activist, and member of Grist’s board of directors:
“Hey, congratulations, or condolences, or whatever’s appropriate. I know you’re focused on that financial meltdown, but it’s the meltdown meltdown that is going to define your two terms in office, Mr. Obama. How you deal with it may be the key to our economic recovery, but even more to the recovery of our stature in the world. We need a deal — but it’s a deal that has to reflect the new crucial piece of information about the planet. According to the scientists at NASA — your scientists, now — that world doesn’t work right above 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. Now that you’re done with 270 electoral votes, that’s the number that’s got to focus your thinking.”
Vinod Khosla, Silicon Valley investor:
“Don’t focus on all things green. Instead look at the few things that can achieve 80 percent carbon reductions per mile driven in our transportation fleet and be low-cost enough to penetrate 80 percent of all transportation including in India and China. For electric power, go beyond current renewable fashion. Look at the technologies that can replace or clean up 80 percent of coal-based electric generation with 80 percent lower carbon kilowatt hours!”
Summer Rayne Oakes.
Summer Rayne Oakes, eco-activist and model:
“President Obama, we are faced with not only a challenge but an opportunity. You have millions of supporters who are urgently seeking a plan to get this country off of dirty energy and lift millions of hardworking people up by providing clean-energy, green-collar jobs. Bills like the Green Jobs Act need to be fully funded and appropriated; Congressman Edward Markey’s iCAP bill is a shining example of forward-thinking legislation; and even Republicans — including Colin Powell and T. Boone Pickens — are looking for change.
“President Obama, the plans and solutions are here — today. Now we need you to help us make them a reality. I say this not only as the sensible but hard-nosed activist that you see me as today, but as a young girl from Pennsylvania who has seen her single mother struggle in an ailing economy and the very land beneath her feet laid to waste by decades of coal mining. I do not forget where I grew up. I do not take the present for granted. And I sure as hell know that with this knowledge, we can look forward to the future with open eyes. I, too, share in your story of a better America and a better world, but we will not get there if we do not have leadership and force of will. So the question is now, will you be that leader … our leader?”
Gus Speth, dean at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies:
“Mr. President, the climate problem is more of a threat to the human future than even many environmentalists realize. You would be well-advised to create a cabinet-level position to lead your efforts nationally and internationally to address it. You should also move quickly to convene a White House meeting of top climate scientists and use that as a springboard to an address to the American people from the Oval Office. You can’t responsibly put this issue off or subsume it under an energy initiative. The most important thing you can accomplish early in your term is major federal climate legislation and a post-Kyoto Protocol international agreement, both aimed at dramatic greenhouse-gas emission reductions.”
Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association:
“If you really want to make the New Energy Economy a reality, the most important step would be to establish long-term, stable policy in support of renewable energy. That means a long-term extension of the renewable-energy-production tax credit as well as the 25 percent federal renewable-electricity standard by 2025.
“Secondly, our best renewable energy resources — wind, solar, geothermal — tend to be found at a distance from where most people live. To get our renewable energy to electric customers, we will need a significant upgrade of the nation’s transmission infrastructure. But the cost of that investment is cheap compared to the value of all the clean, renewable energy that will be made available to help create new jobs, clean up our environment, and make a substantial down payment in the fight to curb global warming.
“Those two steps — stable long-term policy and transmission infrastructure — are the most important steps to move this country into a position for wind to be able to provide 20 percent of our nation’s electricity by 2030.”
Rick Piltz, director of Climate Science Watch:
“Mr. President-elect, I believe global climatic disruption poses two unprecedented challenges. We must dramatically cut emissions, and we have to prepare for potentially disastrous impacts that are already underway and are projected to intensify in the future. Mobilizing the country to take effective action will require great leadership from your administration and a restoration of integrity in dealing with the findings communicated by the science community. Only when the leadership communicates a clear understanding of the potential dangers will Americans support policies that will adequately reduce emissions and the actions needed to prepare for likely impacts. Couple this with putting in place an ongoing nationwide process to further assess the likely consequences of climate change and opportunities to reduce emissions, and incorporate this knowledge into all relevant spheres of activity. This process should engage citizens all across the country.”
Evon Peter, executive director of Native Movement:
“Barack, as you are aware, our world is in need of deep healing and a transformation of consciousness that will lead to tangible changes in policy and practice, shifting the fundamentally unsustainable and exploitative direction in which we are headed. This is not unlike the years leading up to the end of slavery as ideological forces conflicted and arguments over economics and political structure prevailed. Your presidency will require courageous decisions to face the truth in what is inequitable, unjust, and unsustainable if we are to make needed change happen. Many will vehemently challenge these decisions because they are terrified to face the truth in the situation humanity is facing. Your job is to stay true to principles that the world is in great need of receiving from its leaders. We are entering an era of truth over politics and love over violence as a means to our survival. I wish you blessings in keeping to a solid path and carrying this torch forward.”
Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education:
“Higher education has been a leader in helping America overcome many critical challenges and is uniquely positioned to enable the achievement of your goals related to energy, climate, and green jobs. Colleges and universities are eager to help — almost 600 of them have signed a commitment to eliminate their greenhouse-gas emissions and to provide education, research, and outreach to support the transition to sustainability — but they need financial support to meet their potential for leading the sustainability transformation. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 authorized funds to create a “University Sustainability Grants Program” at the Department of Education, but no funds have been allocated. With your help securing this and other federal support, colleges and universities can mobilize their intellectual resources to break America’s dependence on fossil fuels and create millions of new green jobs at the same time.”
David Foster, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance:
“Our energy, environmental, and economic problems are interdependent. So are the solutions. While there are many ways to stimulate the economy, we don’t need a 20th Century stimulus package. We need a “green recovery” — big, public investments in global warming solutions that put Americans back to work. China is building a coal-fired power plant a week. We need to build 500 megawatts of renewable power a week. Set a goal of creating 2 million new jobs in the next two years with global warming solutions. Then push federal spending down through the states and cities to create massive energy-efficiency programs for our building stock, expansion of mass-transit systems, and a modernized grid to bring our renewables to urban markets. With a green recovery underway and Americans headed back to work, you’ll be able to muster the political will to pass legislation that puts a price on carbon, stabilizes energy prices, and funds the long-term economic transition to a clean-energy economy.”
Terry Kellogg, executive director of 1% For The Planet:
“If you look at the landscape of corporate environmental initiatives, the headlines are impressive. But we are a long way from seeing the kind of change that’s necessary. Despite all the noise, most of the big indicators are still moving in the wrong direction. You should incent companies to show what a new, truly sustainable paradigm looks like. Use today’s ‘best in class’ performers as a guide for setting tomorrow’s baseline. And don’t lose sight of the most important challenge and opportunity: getting the prices right. In getting this stuff done, leverage the wisdom and perspective of the nonprofit sector, and the cover and capacity of corporate leaders.”
Jim Moriarty, president of the Surfrider Foundation:
“Inspire us. Lead us. Challenge us. Your campaign was about these themes and now that you are President we need these more than ever. The United States and its citizens are beaten down. We’ve lost our luster around the world and we’ve lost our sense of optimism. Our environments are red-lining; they are under siege because we’ve lost our collective sense of stewardship. Please look beyond the lobbyists who will anchor us to our past, and challenge every single American to build a new future built on energy independence and environmental stewardship. Do these things with the spirit which compelled us to elect you … your sense of hope and optimism. The most important thing we need from you is your belief in what is possible. Remember that always.”
Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University:
“Renewable energy systems at every level of our economy and at every level of user will be the single most positive thing you can do to address our strategic failures in global economics, global warming, and global politics. This trifecta will renew America’s independence and allow us to focus on the most important issues of education and competitiveness.”
Jonathan Fink, director of the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University:
“You should view universities as intellectual resources — not just for new research ideas, but for new ideas on how to implement policy. Public universities in large cities have experience in translating research into policy — that’s where the big gap is.
“More specifically, your administration should view urban areas (where most Americans live) as the places where sustainable solutions need to be developed and implemented. The federal government lags way behind the cities and states in experimenting with new sustainability concepts. Direct your agency heads to figure out how best to address the social, environmental, and economic challenges associated with our country’s continuing trend toward urbanization.
Anna Lappé, author and co-founder of the Small Planet Institute:
“President Obama, you have inspired millions by your call to all of us to become part of the change we want to see in the world. In your speeches, and in the very design of your campaign, you’ve asked us to commit to something greater and bigger than ourselves. After 9/11, we were told to shop. You have called us to act.
“One powerful way you could call upon young people across the country to engage in meaningful change would be to create a Food Corps, modeled after the Peace Corps, that would inspire and support a generation of young people to dedicate a year or two of their lives to engage with ending needless hunger in a country of plenty and the squandering of fossil fuels, water, soil, and other precious resources through chemical agriculture.
“A Food Corps would support young people spreading out into the country to spend time on farms, to teach children in school gardens, to work with emergency food service providers, to engage with food policy councils to transform local, state, and federal policies to support healthy, sustainable foods.
“A Food Corps would, as Wendell Berry would say, solve for pattern: At once, you would generate a compelling call for service and at the same time directly address one of the most painful legacies of previous administrations: 36 million Americans who are food insecure. At that same time, you’d be supporting the flourishing of sustainable, people-dependent, fossil-fuel independent farms and gardens that would be well suited to withstand the coming climate chaos. These organic, sustainable farms, we now know, will also play a vital part in climate-change solutions, because they decrease dependence on fossil fuels and sequester carbon in their soils.
“By creating a Food Corps, you’d be sending a signal to the rest of the world that the United States will no longer be known as the subsidizer of commodities that we dump to the decimation of local food systems globally, but that our country joins together with many others around the world who have embraced the idea that access to healthy food is a basic right of every citizen. May it be so in the new United States of America.”
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation:
“Mr. President, you ran one of the most dignified and inspiring campaigns in American history. Bravo. And by the way, how about appointing Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to run the EPA? And, you know, Wendell Berry would make a great Secretary of Agriculture …”
Anya Fernald, executive director of Slow Food Nation:
“You speak often about how America’s greatest asset is how open and ready Americans are to change, and how creative we as a people are at solving problems through ingenuity and grit. We saw that adaptability and willingness to change in the support your campaign received, and we’ll need to use that same asset if we’re going to make it through the upcoming recession. One area that needs change — and needs it fast — is our food system. The problems caused by the current food system are grave. The way America produces and consumes food is making us physically sick, it’s hurting the environment, and it’s breaking down our rural and urban communities. But changing it could be as simple as inspiring and supporting a rapid and entrepreneurial shift toward a different food system, with the core values of healthy communities, healthy people, and a renewed infrastructure that provides access to affordable, nutritious food for everyone. Inspire that change: fund it, speak about it, and prioritize it in your administration’s legislation, funding, and foreign policy. The benefits will be both immediate and long term, and will support broad, positive shift in individual health, environmental sustainability, quality of life, and economic viability of America’s cities, towns, and rural areas.”
Hank Herrera, project manager for HOPE Collaborative Health for Oakland’s People and Environment:
“I would not say anything to the president-elect about energy and climate because these issues pale in comparison to his achievement in beginning to heal the horror of racism and oppression that has plagued this country and the world for millennia.”
Ann Cooper, director of nutrion services for the Berkeley Unified School District and author of Lunch Lessons; and Kate Adamick, food-systems consultant and director of The Orfalea Fund’s s’Cool Food Initiative:
“Mr. President, our children are America’s most important resource, and food is the most important health, social justice, and national security issue facing them today. Our children deserve to be not just well-fed, but fed well. One way to ensure this is to serve every school child, regardless of income, a cooked-from-scratch meal made with local, sustainable whole foods each day.
This will require:
Increasing the federal reimbursement rate under the National School Lunch Act by at least $1.00 per child per day, and requiring that the additional funds be spent on fresh produce, whole grains, and sustainably raised meat and dairy products rather than on processed “foods”;
Investing in upgrading school kitchen infrastructure to provide cafeteria workers with the equipment they need to properly perform their jobs;
Investing in culinary training to teach cafeteria workers the lost art of cooking meals from scratch, perhaps by following Michael Pollan’s suggestion of forgiving student loans for culinary school graduates who agree to spend two years working in school kitchens;
Raising the nutritional guidelines so that at least 80 percent of the products used in school meal preparation are fresh, whole, sustainably-grown foods, with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables; and
Mandating cooking and gardening classes so that children have hands-on experiential learning opportunities in food-related environments so that they learn to appreciate the intrinsic connections between food, health, and the environment.
“With the CDC predicting that one-third of Caucasian and one-half of African American and Hispanic children are facing the likelihood of acquiring Type II Diabetes, we cannot afford to ignore this issue any longer. We must make our children’s health a national priority. Please, sir, for the sake of our children and our future, say ‘Yes we can.'”
Sam Fromartz, editor of ChewsWise and author of Organic, Inc.:
“Mr. President, the failure of the last eight years has stemmed from two things — an unbridled free market where the government should have intervened and setting the wrong kind of incentives where the government did intervene. That caused industry, finance, and agriculture to bring us down, not build us up. It’s now time to create markets that can work for the social good by getting rid of ethanol welfare and cutting farm subsidies, and by setting carbon caps or taxes. We also need to put money toward green jobs and promote greener agriculture so that we can begin to deal with global warming and recession, and put good food on people’s plates. Do that and you’ll have a lot of people at the table ready to dig in.”
Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation:
“Mr. President, wow, good morning. Ah, er — well, if I may be so presumptuous — what did you have for breakfast this morning? For many, this is the only question that matters. As our president, we expect you to address global warming, particularly as it relates to hunger, as it is among the most pressing issues of our time. Renewable energy, emerging technologies, new efficiency standards, soil conservation, and a shift toward organic farming research will all play roles in creating our green future. Developing a new set of research priorities will be the realm of policy wonks and visionaries. We will support you. It will take time. However, we can move so much faster if we look to our family farmers for solutions. Imagine school lunch programs buying direct from organic farmers. What if cities established production alliances with surrounding producers nearby? Let’s challenge the USDA to recognize organic family farmers as the most precious of our natural resources. Mr. President, if you could name just one organic family farmer who grew just one item at every meal you consumed, the nation would follow. So, are you thinking about dinner yet?”
Bonnie Azab Powell, editor of Ethicurean.com and Edible San Francisco magazine:
“You said you read Michael Pollan’s New York Times Magazine essay on how you could reform food policy if elected — that’s about the best blueprint you could follow. To its many recommendations, I’d add these:
Start a Farm for America job corps program, like Teach for America, for people who want to learn how to farm, with apprenticeship match-ups, salary support, and low-interest loans. Find unused federal land that could be farmed by the program and the fresh, edible proceeds donated to area schools and food banks. This would double as an excellent economic stimulus package a lá the Works Progress Administration.
Appoint a Secretary of Agriculture who does not represent Big Food or Big Farma. Iowa organic farmer and activist Denise O’Brien, who narrowly missed being elected that state’s Ag Sec, would be an excellent pick.
Consider revamping how the USDA is structured: The agency in charge of regulating agriculture should not also be in charge of promoting its economic interests. And while you’re at it, perhaps institute a groundbreaking “no revolving door” policy at the USDA, FDA, and EPA: high-ranking officials cannot have held executive positions at the corporations they will be regulating and are banned from going to work for them for, say, three years after they finish serving in the government.
Educate yourself more thoroughly about ethanol and other biofuels: federal support and subsidies for them have extremely detrimental trickle-down effects.”
Gordon Jenkins, director of Eat-Ins.org and content coordinator for Slow Food Nation:
“You’ve already read Pollan’s article, so you know that you can’t deal with our climate, energy, and healthcare crises without addressing food and agriculture. The generation of young people that’s inheriting the food system is ready for green jobs in sustainable food production. Create policy and invest in programs to incubate new farmers and train us to grow and share food that is good for us, good for the planet, and good for our communities. We will follow your lead.”
Hope Shand, research director for the ETC Group:
“Mr. President-elect, congratulations. I’m ecstatic that change has come to America. Industrial biofuels may be popular in big farm states, but they have been a tragic boondoggle that can’t be remotely described as a socially or environmentally sustainable response to climate change. Industrial agrofuels are driving many of the world’s poorest farmers off their land, and they’ve been the single greatest factor contributing to soaring food prices — pushing millions of people in the global South from subsistence to hunger. Instead of dismantling perverse biofuel subsidies, our current energy policy dictates that by 2022, 44 percent of our biofuels must come from so-called “next generation” non-edible cellulosic feedstocks — all of it made possible by advanced biotechnologies that don’t yet exist.
“Some of your advisors will point to synthetic biology — the creation of designer organisms built from synthetic DNA — as the newest techno-fix. Many of the world’s largest agribusiness and energy corporations are investing in engineered microbes (“living chemical factories”) fueled by plant-derived sugars to produce transportation fuels, chemicals, textiles, drugs, and more. It may sound clean and green, but massive demand for agricultural feedstocks will deplete soil and water, destroy biodiversity, and devastate marginalized farm communities. Synthetic biology is moving full speed ahead with little debate about who will control the technology, how it will be regulated, and despite grave concerns surrounding the safety and security risks of designer organisms.
“It’s time to resurrect the federal Office of Technology Assessment and get serious about steps to ensure public participation and transparency in how our government makes decisions about public funding for new technologies. Let’s take a cue from European states and adopt policies that rely on a precautionary approach to high-tech, high-risk science and technology.”
Timothy LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute:
“One inexpensive technology that is available today to clean up our waterways, build soil instead of lose it, produce healthier food for all citizens (thereby reducing healthcare costs), and reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere by 40 percent — the largest single tool to fight global warming — is to simply pay all farmers for carbon, not corn. And it will mean we will just have to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, because this technology is organic, regenerative agriculture.”
Zoe Bradbury, Oregon coast farmer and Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellow:
“It’s an incredible thing to have a president who recognizes the importance of sustainable agriculture and regional food systems — and most of all, a president who acknowledges the need to proactively foster a new generation of young farmers in America. Thank you for being that president, Mr. Obama. Your leadership on this front is going to be critical to the food security — and the national security — of this country in the coming years.
“We need you to cultivate an energized cadre of young farmers in this country — farmers who can put healthy, green, fair, clean food on the plates of every American. Farmers who can wean U.S. agriculture off of its oil addiction. Farmers who can steward land with the next seven generations in mind.
“We’re at a critical point: Farmers make up a scant 1 percent of the U.S. population, and at 55, the average American farmer is older than ever before. This at the same time that America’s young farmers are scarcer than any time in history. Remember, the equation is frighteningly simple: no farmers, no food.
“We need you to go to bat for young farmers so that we, in turn, can feed this country well. We need affordable, accessible farmland. We need equitable access to credit. We need vibrant, fair, stable markets. We need technical assistance and agricultural training programs. And at very core of it all, we need to restore honor to one of the world’s oldest, most essential professions.
“Your dinner depends on it.”
Roni Neff, research director for the Center for a Livable Future:
“Climate change is a top threat to public health, justice, and wellbeing. Missing from most lists of climate responses is food. Nearly one-third of global greenhouse-gas emissions come from current agriculture and forestry practices.
As you develop your climate agenda, here’s some low-hanging fruit:
Address hidden subsidies for meat and communicate an “eat less red meat” message.
Promote climate-friendly food production, labeling, access, and affordability.
Reevaluate the ethanol mandate.
Support good management that enables soil, forests, and plants to store vast quantities of carbon.
Support research and programs on agriculture for a climate-impacted future.
Establish a Food Agency to address these and other food-system challenges.
“The American people have given you a mandate to lead boldly. We are full of hope as you set the table for action.”