Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Unipolar Moment Reconsidered

Columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in 2004 that the predominance of U.S. power in the world after the fall of the Soviet Union was a “staggering development in history, not seen since the fall of Rome.” Krauthammer and his fellow neoconservatives famously concluded from this disparity in power that the United States needed to adopt an aggressive foreign policy agenda to enhance and continue its dominance in the “New American Century.”

This conclusion was the wrong lesson from history and from any reasonable and compassionate view of the desirable future arc of humanity. Rather than consolidate and expand U.S. power in the 21st century, with a mix of military, economic and cultural coercion — the neocon strategy — the United States should instead seize what is still our unique unipolar moment and work toward a truly multilateral and multipolar world.

The last two centuries have been dominated by one nation — the hegemon, which comes from the Greek for “leader.” Britain was the first global hegemon, and indeed the “sun never set on the British empire.” Britain’s dominance was fueled, literally, by coal, which allowed the industrial revolution to work its magic first in Britain. This led to great economic might, which was translated into military might. With a sense of cultural superiority, the “White Man’s Burden,” the British empire was ruthless in its domination of areas of the world as far-flung as North America, India, Jamaica, Gibraltar and Australia. Britain at its peak, however, never comprised more than 10 percent of the global economy.

The United States, fueled by coal and oil, which was first found in Titusville, Pa., in 1859, an expansive and ever-growing territory that spanned a whole continent, and a sense of “American exceptionalism,” was the successor to the British empire, reaching 19 percent of global economic output in 1913, at the verge of World War I, and 35 percent at the height of World War II. The United States is now about 20 percent of the global economy, its share shrinking as other nations grow rapidly. The United States’ historical wealth of oil, coal and natural gas allowed it to grow to such a dominant economic and military position that it is truly deserving of being called an empire.

See Noozhawk for the rest of this piece.

Am Embarrassment of Riches

Renewable energy is taking off in many places around the world. Growth rates of 30-50% in wind and solar have been the norm for the last decade in the US and around the world. Unfortunately, California has been stuck in neutral when it comes to wholesale renewables, relinquishing its early lead in the global renewable energy race.

The nations that have led the way on renewable energy in the last decade have used robust “feed-in tariffs” to create entire new industries. The litany is familiar to those in the renewable energy business: Germany, Italy, Spain, Ontario (a province in Canada) and now China. These five regions have all seen growth go from low levels to record levels practically overnight right after they started requiring that utilities buy power at a set price from third party developers of wind, solar and other renewables.

A sixth jurisdiction is less well-known: California. But not the California we live in now. Rather, the California that created a robust feed-in tariff in the 1980s under the federal Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA). Under PURPA, California faced an “embarrassment of riches” in terms of renewable energy projects coming online, as the Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) described it at the time.

The large majority of wind and solar projects online today in California came online in the 1980s and 1990s under PURPA. Since PURPA was effectively gutted in the early 1990s, due to declining fossil fuel prices and tax policy changes, California has seen very little wholesale renewable energy come online. The current system, the Renewables Portfolio Standard (SB 1078 and SB 107), started in 2003 and has resulted in a tiny amount of new renewable energy development since then. All three of California’s big investor-owned utilities will fail to meet the current 20% by 2010 mandate for renewables and have, in fact, slid backwards in terms of their renewable energy percentages since the start of this policy

See here for the rest of this article.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Debate That Will Shape America's Future

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster, the Massey, West Virginia coal mine accident, the Tennessee coal ash disaster in 2008, the BP oil refinery disaster in Texas in 2006, and countless other fossil fuel disasters are finally having an effect on public opinion. And the sting of record prices from 2008 is still in the recent memory of American consumers. Fully 2/3 of Americans believe Congress needs to make our country's energy needs a top priority.

Recent polls have found, however, that a shrinking portion of America believes that climate change is a human-caused problem or that we need to take serious action to mitigate climate change. A May, 2010, poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that only 32% of Americans thought that climate change should be a “top priority” for Congress (see chart, below).

This is the debate, revolving around energy and climate change, that will define America’s future. It is not the only debate that will do so, but I believe it is the most important debate we will have over the coming decades.

Read the rest at