Blog post

Burnt toastOn Wednesday June 2, President Barack Obama called for an end to U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. Continuing reliance on oil, coal, and natural gas will, he said, “jeopardize our national security, it will smother our planet and it will continue to put our economy and our environment at risk.”

That is the essence of our organization’s message to the world, so we at Post Carbon Institute couldn’t be happier to hear these words from the White House bully pulpit. It’s just possible that someone on President Obama’s staff has been listening to us. If so, hear this too: This is going to be a very big job, and while public education is an essential component, bold action will also be needed.

The President is right in saying that getting off of fossil fuels is an important priority. If anything, he understates the case: if we don’t succeed in doing this, we are toast—certainly in the figurative sense, and perhaps literally as well. In fact, the post-carbon imperative needs to be understood as the central organizing principle of government policy for the next two or three decades. Otherwise, it will not be possible to organize anywhere near the level of effort needed.

What sort of effort are we talking about? Here’s a short list of what needs to happen:

  • Enormous investment (many hundreds of billions of dollars cumulatively, spread out over a couple of decades) in solar, wind, and other alternative energy sources
  • Massive shifts in transport infrastructure—away from internal combustion engines and toward electrification, including provision of electrified public transport options in every town and city
  • A complete overhaul of urban planning at all levels to reduce the need for both commuting and long-distance shopping trips
  • An epic effort to retrofit housing, especially across the northern tier of the nation, to dramatically reduce the need for indoor heating in winter months and to provide alternate heat sources
  • A comprehensive redesign of the American food system, from farm to plate, to reduce fossil fuel inputs, soil erosion, and the need for irrigation.

The price tag? No one knows for sure, but it’s certain to be in the trillions of dollars.

Seeing just how gargantuan this task really is, a political leader might be tempted just to pay lip service to the energy transition—and, when it comes time to act, simply kick the can on down the road, leaving the job for someone else to follow through on. In that case we get what the President only hints at: utter and complete economic and environmental ruin, plus a few more oil wars thrown in for good measure.

So far, Mr. Obama is using his truth-telling moment about our fossil fuel addiction mostly to promote the Kerry-Lieberman cap-and-trade climate bill that’s stalled in the Senate. Unfortunately, this is a bill whose passage is debatably even a decent start in the direction of needed change. There are also some suggestions on the table about reducing tax breaks to oil companies; this is unquestionably a good idea—a no-brainer, in fact. But is it the beginning of a grand historic effort to transition the nation to a sustainable footing, or merely the last policy item on the list of what is politically possible for a besieged President in a mid-term election year?

We’ve heard the talk, and we at Post Carbon Institute couldn’t agree more. Now: let’s all go for a nice long walk.

Photo credit: Sheep Purple/flickr

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Reader Comments


Green New Deal

From: Colin Wright, Jun 7, 2010 08:03 PM

Similar thoughts on the need for a massive government green infrastructure are to be found in a new book out in July by Jon Rynn:

Deepwater Horizon

From: Cutler Cleveland, Jun 5, 2010 08:20 AM

Keep up the good work on the Deepwater Horizon accident. An up-to-date overview can be found in the Encyclopedia of Earth:

Obama and fossil fuels dependence.

From: claude saint-jarre, Jun 4, 2010 02:44 AM

This is a wonderful news! Therefore, there should be a new website to create a link between the transition movement and Obama Administration. Its purpose would be to imagine the United States Energy Descent Action Plan , to help execute it and to report on all that. There should also be inquiry on other political adminisrations, from municipalities to global governments who act in the same way.
By the way, if you check magnegas technology, you can see that it can help to genereate electricity ecologically with human wastes. ( sludges)

Nowhere to kick the can

From: Richard Eis, Jun 4, 2010 01:15 AM

Obama can't kick the can any further. He will still be in power when the next "crisis" occurs and the government has used pretty much all their options shoring up the last "crisis" (if you call the loss of non-existent money a crisis ;)

More to Sustainability

From: Tony Weddle, Jun 3, 2010 10:09 PM

I absolutely agree with the list of things that need doing (though I'd be interested in the scale), not just in the US, but in the societies and communities of readers across the world.

However, the shortlist omits a whopper. The end of economic and population growth.

In fact, we need to start measuring any actions against the five axioms of sustainability that you put together, a couple of years ago. Against these measures, is it at all likely that Obama, or any other world leader will seek to take the necessary actions for sustainability? I hope so but I very much doubt it.

Talking the Truth

From: Rob Mielcarski, Jun 3, 2010 09:49 PM

Obama may not be walking the talk. But you are not talking the straight truth.

1) To avoid runaway global warming we must stop all use of coal plus stop non-coventional oil plus create carbon tax plus stop deforestation plus control population growth. (see James Hansen for backup analysis). We cannot stop using remaining conventional oil because there is no alternative and we need it for the following.

2) To maintain some form of civilization as we know it we need to replace most of the electricity that will no longer be generated by coal. And possibly increase capacity for transportation electrification.

3) Even with aggressive conservation and renewable build out, it won't be anywhere near enough. (see David MacKay for analysis)

4) Our only choice is nuclear. But current nuclear produces too much waste and consumes too much depleting non-renewable fuel. Therefore we need crash program to develop 4th generation nuclear and a little luck. (see James Hansen for reference). If successful, 4th generation nuclear will burn waste from today's reactors and will produce very little new waste.

If you understand physics and study the data you will know the above to be true and our only option.

You guys need to start speaking the straight truth.

electrification of transportation

From: LEO ESTEL, Jun 3, 2010 04:02 PM

I keep seeing the term 'electrification of tranportation', but no mention of the source of the energy for this.

Where will the energy come from?