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Time to wave the green-spangled banner

Written by Peter Byck on .

new_scientist

The best way to promote clean energy is to ignore climate change and focus on things like jobs, money and national security

IN THE 1970s everyone thought environmentalism meant granola, which meant health food stores, which meant carob, a horrible substance the health-foodies told us we should eat instead of chocolate. In the same decade, US president Jimmy Carter reduced the speed limit on interstates from 70 miles per hour to 55 mph to save energy. Carter got kicked out and carob made it feel like "doing the right thing" was akin to taking medicine: the environmental movement was saddled with pseudo-chocolate and painfully slow driving.

Now motoring is going electric, not because of its moral compass - it's just that the engines perform much better. I took a ride with Elon Musk behind the wheel of his company's new Tesla Roadster electric sports car. He floored it, and the g-force made my headphones rotate swiftly around my head. Goodbye carob, hello delicious chocolate!

I'm a whiny liberal film-maker who has spent the past four years making Carbon Nation, a documentary about climate change solutions that doesn't even care if you believe in climate change. I know climate change is real and happening, but you don't have to agree with me to see the benefits of clean energy. A low-carbon economy is also a national security issue, a great business opportunity, even just a way to keep families together. As The New York Times writer Thomas Freedman says in the movie: "It's the most patriotic thing you can be, do, think or feel today. Green is the new red, white and blue."

This is exactly where I have found great areas of common ground with knuckle-dragging conservatives. Finding common ground isn't supposed to be possible in the US - our lost, polarised land. But I'm here to tell you we're not polarised, and we're far from lost. We're being told we're polarised to keep political pundits in business. Problem is, that story is being bought by most in Congress, so our march to a clean energy economy has been stymied, to say the least.

Outside the bubble of Washington DC, people are much less partisan. More than 1050 of our 1200 big-city mayors have vowed to reduce carbon emissions in their cities to below 1990 levels, in line with the Kyoto protocol. They are a competitive bunch, in a slugfest to outdo each other. Boston raises its building standards, so New York raises its own and adds a mandate for all taxis to be hybrids by 2015. And guess what: mayors become state governors, and a few of them go on to become presidents.

Last year I saw the mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, campaign for the state governor's seat. He told the following story of his city's budget crisis.

He gathered all the city hall employees, imploring them: "Save your jobs, figure out how to save money." A janitor took up the challenge and said, in a nutshell: "We janitors work from 5 pm to 11 pm. How about we come in at 2 pm, empty your trash while you're in your offices, then at 5 pm, start the vacuuming and loud stuff, and we'll be done at 8pm, and we can turn off all the lights." Number-crunching proved this would save a lot of money. The idea was implemented and jobs were saved.

Now here is the unintended benefit: the janitors got to go home at 8 pm and spend time with their families. Hickenlooper won the election as a Democrat in a very Republican state. I think that tells us something.

In the making of Carbon Nation we found many similar down-to-earth stories about the benefits of clean energy. In Roscoe, Texas, a town so down and out its Dairy Queen fast-food restaurant closed, cotton farmer Cliff Etheredge wanted to build the world's largest wind farm to help his town earn a steady source of income. His son moved home to help. They contracted land from 400 neighbours, enticed Eon Energy to fund it, and behold, they did it. Young adults who had left Roscoe to find work in Dallas and Houston could come home. It's a pretty good deal.

Titans of industry see the benefits too. Everyone that I met and/or interviewed, including Jim Rogers of Duke Energy, the US's fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, Richard Branson of Virgin and Bob Iger of Disney (which has an internal carbon tax in place), wants a price on carbon. So does every military person I met, including ex-CIA director Jim Woolsey, every reporter including The Wall Street Journal editor Alan Murray, every economist and every nuclear proponent. All want a price on carbon. And they all concede Congress will never have the guts to do it.

Yet we already have a huge carbon tax. A recent study by Harvard Medical School in Boston found that using coal as a fuel creates enormous financial burdens on the US economy. When factoring in mining, transportation and electricity generation, the bill is between one-third and half a trillion dollars in health, economic and environmental costs every year. This is what the business school folks call external costs - they aren't paid by the coal or utility industry, but are picked up by ordinary people. Just using the study's lower number, every man, woman and child in the US pays $1000 annually (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol 1219, p 73).

I say, let's lower this carbon tax by putting a price on carbon right when it enters the economy, and watch as clean energy innovation takes off. I love a hot shower, I'm really glad the yogurt is cold in my fridge, I just don't want to give the kid down the street, or my son for that matter, asthma.

I don't think the oil, coal and natural gas companies are committed to emitting carbon. They are committed to making money. So let's find ways for energy companies to make enormous amounts of money with clean energy, and leave the carbon in the ground, where it belongs.

Peter Byck is a film-maker based in Kentucky. Carbon Nation is being screened across North America and will be available on DVD in August