We rarely see them coming, the moments that crystallize public opinion on matters of enormous national importance. There was Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, Reagan at the Berlin Wall, or tobacco executives testifying before Congress that nicotine is not addictive. I believe we are now witnessing another one, a gushing oil spill from a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The spill threatens one of America's most productive fisheries, as well as working men and women who depend on it. The toll on the Gulf's wildlife populations is potentially catastrophic. People's livelihoods and entire communities are at risk.
Here's the lesson of this moment: fossil fuels come with a price far beyond what we pay for gasoline at the pump or what we pay on our utility bills. It's time to move toward a cleaner energy future.
If that doesn't get your attention, this should: the bureaucrats in Beijing and Brussels couldn't be happier than to see America sitting on its hands while our addiction to oil costs us clean energy jobs. That's as obvious as the killer oil spill that's terrorizing the Gulf Coast.
The price of fossil fuels cannot be measured just in the billion dollars a day we send overseas for imported oil — though that itself is has a devastating impact on our economy and national security. It must also be calculated by asthma rates, tons of smog, and the parts per million of mercury in our lakes and rivers.
And we haven't yet seen the ultimate cost of carbon: catastrophic climate change that could threaten both the U.S. and the world with heat waves, sea level rise, and mass extinctions of wildlife species.
The benefits of moving away from fossil fuels will be undeniable — and even the minority of Americans who haven't embraced the science of climate change agree on the goals. We'll be a more secure America when we end our dangerous dependence on oil imports, often from countries hostile to our interests. We'll be able to compete with the Chinese job creation machine. We'll reduce the air pollution that is driving childhood disease rates through the roof. And we'll sidestep the worst environmental impacts that come with our addiction to foreign oil and the super-heated atmosphere that causes global warming.
Is there a solution? You bet. Let's give American entrepreneurs and workers a true Green light to create and manufacture technologies that generate clean energy and use energy more efficiently.
The U.S. can lead the world in these technologies, just as we led the first industrial revolution. But we must move quickly. The next industrial revolution is already underway. Last year, China spent two dollars for every American buck devoted to clean energy. Economists tell us that if we give the Chinese another couple of years that lead will grow to four to one.
Just last year, China passed Denmark, Germany, Spain, and the U.S. to become the world's largest maker of wind turbines. In the last two years, China also became the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels.
I want these jobs kept here in America, and I want to export these technologies to China and Europe, not the other way around. The best way to accomplish that is to pass an energy independence and climate bill in this session of Congress. The House of Representatives has already done this, and Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman just unveiled their approach to encouraging reviews. They worked closely with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham to draft the bill. The House and Senate bills are very different, but their goals are the same: More American power and less pollution.
The Senate bill, as was the case with healthcare or any other major legislation, has hit political snags along the way. We can't let politics stop a bill of this importance. This chance for Congress to pass an energy and climate bill this year won't come again soon. President Obama should step up his efforts to rally the Senate to pass this bill.
Our economy won't be transformed overnight. But we can start now by passing an energy independence and climate bill this year. In years to come, we'll look back at the Gulf oil spill as the crystallizing moment that finally propelled us to act.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Fred Krupp is president of Environmental Defense Fund, 257 Park Avenue South, New York, N.Y. 10010; website: www.edf.org. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.