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Why is climate change such a challenging issue? Why Steven Chu thinks Cleveland cannot cede the clean energy battle to China

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/19/12 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Climate

Why is climate change such a challenging issue to tackle? What happens when you introduce a philosophical approach to the problem? GreenCityBlueLake Institute and the Natural History Museum did-with Case ethics professor, Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, at the Ethics of Climate Change presentation back in December.

Climate change is an intergenerational concern, he said, and the thorniness of that raises a new question of ethics. "The people around 100 years from now that I'm doing this to, what would it be like to look them in the face?"

Solutions to climate change may come from a better system of global governance. "Our institutions work within a nation-state, and that's not conducive to dealing with a problem on a global scale. It lets powerful nations make powerless people in the world, such as small island states.

"It's not often that you get a new question of ethics (but with climate change) our system mostly doesn't think beyond the current generation. There's no way to have that (conversation) with our future generations. They can't give us anything, but we can ruin their worlds.

We need to develop a moral status of non-human beings, and to try to think as a society beyond election cycles and quarterly returns. That is why climate change is 'the perfect moral storm.'"

"What does it say about us that the over use of resources-that our production method is based on vaporizing all the carbon on the planet-is the wanton destruction of life?"

We have positive examples of how to respond, he added, notably, with our grandparents and the Greatest Generation. "They had the moral idea of making sacrifice for the future. It become the noble choice."

* * * *

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary and Nobel Prize winner in physics, Dr. Steven Chu affirmed that manufacturing powerhouses like Cleveland cannot cede the battle to China if the U.S. hopes to climb out of its economic cellar and restore prosperity. He made special note of the opportunity for Cleveland to capitalize on new economies, particularly, clean energy tech and deployment during a speech at the Cleveland City Club yesterday.

Chu noted that Northeast Ohio was ranked sixth in clean energy production by a recent Brookings Institution report. That head start can lead to a real Cleveland renaissance. But Cleveland still needs the help of "subtle" government policy-like the same tax advantages for clean tech enjoyed by the oil and gas industry.

"Manufacturing is of huge importance. When the economists say, 'we don't have to worry about manufacturing', I say, 'are we going to be buying or selling?'"

Worldwide, clean energy tech is a $260 billion market that's projected to grow to $400-500 billion by 2020, Chu said. Like computers, oil and gas, and airplanes, the U.S. government needs to be an early adopter. As with those industries, the goal is to spur the market and then get out of the way.

But to think that government shouldn't help industries get off the ground is a mistake. "It's not a level playing field. The Chinese government is spending billions to develop and deploy clean tech like solar and wind."

The U.S. invented air travel, wind turbines, the Lithium-Ion battery, but in all cases lost the lead to other countries when it stopped direct support to R&D, Chu said. But in the case of airplanes, the U.S. was determined to retain the lead-as a result Boeing still competes with (Europe's) AirBus for top position in the field.

Home grown sources of clean energy like Cleveland's Lake Erie wind turbine project need to be supported by Ohio, Chu said. "You have 274 Gigawatts of off shore wind (to tap)-how are you going to make that accessible and affordable?"

Chu suggests coupling the Lake Erie wind turbines with quick-firing natural gas power plants – which may be a good stand by source when wind isn't in supply because they "go from zero to 500 megawatts in 10 minutes."

(Speaking to a Cleveland councilman afterwards, we discussed the possibility of AMP-Ohio and Cleveland Public Power looking into a natural gas power plant to replace the scratched coal-fired plant that the muni power consortium was to build in Southern Ohio).

Natural gas prices are at an all time low-and if fracking can figure out its waste water contamination issues-the new supply of shale gas in the Midwest could make quick-fire natural gas plants coupled with wind turbine farms more feasible.

"We need to make traditional power providers partners so they can share in the profits. Six percent of U.S. power is from renewables. We're starting a dialogue with power producers to make renewables price competitive."

If the U.S. is to get serious about its leadership role-in global governance and moral issues like climate change-it will have to cut its oil consumption by 1/3 by 2025, but how? With production tax credits for clean tech companies about to expire in Congress, more efficiency-in cars, buildings, the power grid-are the smart investment in the future.

* * * *

We've all seen the bumper stickers that read: "Shift happens" But does it happen without us being intentional and seeking change? This event came across our desk as a reminder of how to lift our thoughts out of the day to day grind and change ours and the planet's fortunes:

"Putting the Pieces Back Together: Reintegrating People, the Environment and the Economy"

The modern world is fragmented. The current economy is divorced from human concerns. People are separated from nature. Environmental considerations are at odds with economic reality. The results of this fragmentation include poverty, corruption, pollution, income inequality, depression, crime, anxiety and social breakdown. In this talk, Dr. Marci Rossell will put our boom and bust economy into historical context and discuss restoring the traditional connections between people, the environment and the economy.

Marci Rossell, PhD is a market economist. Dr. Rossell is the former chief economist for CNBC. She began her career at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and is currently a popular speaker on the economy, financial issues and globalization.

* * * *

We're often asked how to make better decisions on the products we buy – can we as consumers drive companies to consider people, profit and planet at the forefront? Here's one in a constellation of buying decisions that will move us toward that goal: In our household, the Preserve toothbrush is in rotation – literally. This well-made toothbrush is made in the U.S. from recycled yogurt cups, and they come with their own SASE package to mail them back to the company to be recycled at the end of their use.

In my estimation, this is true sustainability – a closed loop that all companies can aspire to (like Flor, the recycled carpet tiles which are also in our living room because they can be sent back to the manufacturer to be ground down and used again). Is this closed loop business strategy going to be a trend in the U.S. because consumers demand it (as it is in Europe where countries adopt laws requiring manufacturers like car makers to reclaim their products and recycle them)?

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