Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the Climate Crisis: What Must Be Done

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A green revolution is also taking place in building construction. In Lower Manhattan, according to city officials, every new construction project valued at more than $25 million is being built on environment-friendly principles. More than 500 mayors of American cities have passed or pledged to pass green standards for new development, and developers who once fought such moves now recognize that they can quickly recover any added costs of green development through energy savings, higher rents and higher resale values. Indeed, the advantages of building green are now so widely recognized that the nation's top real estate manager, Steven Roth of Vornado, recently told an industry group, "If you build a new building that is not green, you're going to be in trouble."

Even more dramatic is the potential that already exists for unlocking more energy from natural gas. According to Lovins, we can save half the natural gas we currently use – while cutting its cost to as little as one-tenth its current price – simply through more efficient use. Two-thirds of the savings will come from conserving electricity during peak hours – by relying on existing technology like the so-called "intelligent grid," which can dim lighting and turn off hot-water heaters in millions of homes and offices on hot summer days. The remaining third will come from switching to more energy-efficient devices, many of which are already on store shelves.

Even making a few modest changes in our homes could dramatically curb carbon pollution. Widespread use of new LEDs – light-emitting diodes that are brighter, longer-lasting and ten times more efficient than conventional bulbs – could eliminate up to ten percent of U.S. electricity demand. An even simpler innovation – switching to cold-water laundry detergent – would eliminate enough CO2 each year to meet eight percent of the U.S. target under the Kyoto treaty. Using existing off-the-shelf technologies, Lovins estimates, would cut natural-gas costs by $50 billion every year – displacing demand for foreign oil without building a single new natural-gas terminal or coal-burning power plant.

Finally, a marketplace freed from oil subsidies would tap the energy wealth of biofuels already in use around the world. Brazil has eliminated two-fifths of its gasoline demand with ethanol produced from sugar cane, and American farmers have the capacity to produce 4 million barrels a day of cellulosic ethanol without touching an acre of farmland, simply by harvesting switchgrass that protects topsoil, wildlife habitat and water purity. According to Lovins, the combination of advanced biofuels, fuel-efficient cars and better use of natural gas Could create more than enough energy to end America's oil imports from all OPEC countries by 2025. By 2050, when all the gas-guzzling cars and trucks currently on the roads will be reduced to scrap metal, we can completely eliminate oil as a fuel source.

Aggresive action by the federal government could speed up our transition from oil faster than even the most optimistic predictions outlined by Lovins. If, for example, we made national investments in hydrogen fuels, which are more than twice as efficient as hydrocarbons, America could actually export energy from the Great Plains – the "Saudi Arabia of wind." The Dakotas alone have sufficient wind to make all the hydrogen necessary to run every car and truck on the road in America, at nearly triple the efficiency of gasoline. At the Napa Valley summit, business leaders watched a presentation by John Woolard of BrightSource Energy, which builds large-scale solar power plants. With a level playing field, he boasts, "we'll be able to power the entire United States on less than one percent of our total land."

But the challenge facing us today is not one of gambling on unproven technologies, or even of choosing among wind or solar or hydrogen or switchgrass as the best way to reduce global warming. Our challenge is to create a rational marketplace – one that serves the broader interests of our nation by unleashing the innovative power of American entrepreneurs to transform our energy economy. Done right, this transformation will not only curb global warming, it will create an engine of sustainable economic growth for generations. By enabling current technologies to compete with oil, America can triple the efficiency of our cars, trucks and planes, cut our demand for oil and natural gas in half – and walk away more prosperous for our efforts. "Energy independence is possible – and if done correctly, it can fuel economic growth," says King, the PG&E executive.

This new energy economy will not only save the planet from overheating, it will create jobs in the process. "We need to build a trillion solar panels," says McDonough, the award-winning architect. "There are four jobs installing solar panels for every manufacturing job in creating them. The Chinese can't capture those jobs, because the energy is inherently local. The Chinese can't steal our photons."

A new wave of innovation is already taking place all across America. Lee Jensen, a dairy farmer in Elk Mound, Wisconsin, is converting cow manure from his family's farm into enough electricity to power 6o0 homes. Brian Fairbank, a ski resort operator in Hancock, Massachusetts, is building a commercial wind turbine near the summit of Jiminy Peak – a first for a ski resort. And thousands of pioneering homeowners and businesses have installed energy-saving windows, solar panels and compact fluorescent light bulbs, while buying up hybrid-electric cars as fast as they roll off assembly lines.

One of the only Americans left behind in this rush of innovation is George W. Bush. The president continues to insist that improving fuel efficiency would hamstring the American economy and give an economic advantage to China, which is exempted from the global-warming reductions laid out in the Kyoto treaty. To the contrary, boosting fuel standards would give us the economic advantage. Efficiency is strength – that was the lesson Detroit didn't learn when Japan used energy-efficient cars to conquer the American automobile market. In 1970, U.S. automakers had eighty-six percent of the domestic car market, and the Japanese had three percent. Today, Japan has forty percent, while Detroit is at forty-two percent and declining.

Unlike our government, China understands the connection between fuel efficiency and a strong economy. Beijing has already passed efficiency standards for automobiles that are so high that many American-made cars can no longer be legally sold in China. Thanks to our inefficiency, we risk losing a market of 1.3 billion people.

Rather than using the industrial growth in China and India as an excuse to keep polluting, America should seize the economic opportunity that these emerging markets represent. To support its rapid industrialization, China is building a new coal-fired plant every week – generating unprecedented levels of pollution that threaten the entire planet. If we unleash the innovative power of our own market, the United States could be in a unique position to produce the technologies that China will need to avoid destroying itself.

"They are locked on a gerbil wheel," says Alan Salzman, a venture capitalist with VantagePoint, which is investing heavily in climate-saving technologies. "They have to keep up their growth rate of eleven percent to produce enough jobs every year to avoid political unrest. If we don't figure out the technologies that allow them to hopscotch a carbon-based economy, we face an eco-apocalypse."

This story is from the June 27, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.

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