Today, the New York Times published a Room for Debate series of columns on “Can the U.S. Compete With China on Green Tech?”. I wanted to focus in particular on David Roberts’ column, “Understanding the Objective“, which decries the Republican failure to support clean energy policies.
As a Republican, David’s argument felt like a slap in the face. The problem is that he is right that “Republican officeholders do not believe that boosting America’s clean energy industries is a worthy goal.” The fundamental problem is that there are few conservatives who know much about the costs and benefits of clean energy policy. Instead of debating the merits or pitfalls of the left’s clean energy and climate change mitigation policies, the right has reflexively opposed them all.
As I see it, there are two problems today in conservative thought on clean energy. The first is that the right has not framed the issue in a manner that rallies its political base to support a transition from a fossil-fuel-based economy to a green one. For the left, much support for clean energy comes from a desire to reduce harm to the environment. This is certainly a worthy goal, but it will win few supporters on the right when balanced against economic growth.
To win clean energy advocates on the right, the way is simple: This is about America’s survival.
The clock is ticking. At 2009 production rates, the United States and China will each consume its domestic oil reserves within eleven years. Oil represents thirty-nine percent of American and nineteen percent of Chinese energy consumption and most of this oil fuels both countries’ transportation systems. A significant supply disruption could literally shut both economies down.
Over the past two decades, China has become an economic dynamo and its explosive growth has been breathtaking. In 1990, thirty-three Chinese cities had more than one million inhabitants. In 2010, there were eighty-eight. To fuel this growth, China’s demand for natural resources has been rapacious. It accounted for forty-six percent of worldwide coal consumption in 2009, and it devours similar shares of aluminum and zinc. In the same year, it used two times as much crude steel as the United States, European Union, and Japan combined and purchased more automobiles than the United States. In 2010, Chinese consumers are estimated to have purchased more mobile phones than all other countries combined. The IMF estimates that China will account for between twenty and twenty-five percent of global growth in 2010.
China’s rapid growth and its voracious appetite for global resources are fueled by demographics, particularly the growth of industrial cities and the rise of a middle class. As the standard of living of over one billion people improves and more Chinese move to cities, the demand for an increasing global share of natural resources is an inevitable certainty. China will need more steel to build cars whose increasing numbers will demand more fuel to operate. More important, it is a Chinese national security imperative to provide enough jobs to an increasingly urban population to ensure stable employment and to offset the potentially destabilizing effects of China’s now-defunct one-child policy. Chinese President Hu Jintao has remarked that his most pressing concern is creating twenty-five million jobs a year for Chinese citizens.
These demographic shifts will further exacerbate major gender imbalances, which are due primarily to female abortion or infanticide in countries like China and India. By 2030, China will have 31.5 million more males than females between the ages of fifteen and forty-nine. With such a large number of single males, China could likely experience significant internal unrest and instability over the coming decade.
Today, China’s economy is humming at a 9.6 percent GDP growth rate and unemployment is at 4.1 percent. This growth rate dwarfs the United States’ post-recession GDP growth of two to three percent. If China’s growth rate sputters, as it inevitably will, its unemployment rate could rise precipitously and the effects would ripple far beyond its borders. Any rise in unemployment could increase instability. China already experiences over 100,000 protests annually. One way for China’s communist leaders to diffuse this internal tension might be to focus it outward toward external enemies.
The potential collision course that the United States and China are on has not been lost on China’s strategic planners. Over the past two decades, China has been quietly preparing for the possibility of a major clash with the United States in two ways, which are linked directly to its ability to access and secure energy resources. China has been steadily building its “blue water” fleet, presumably to provide it with the ability to project its navy far beyond its shores. Such capability is especially important given China’s need to protect supply lines to energy resources in the Persian Gulf and Africa. China has also been extremely active in Africa over the past decade in securing development contracts, selling arms, and providing foreign aid. Chinese leaders are not taking these actions deliberately to undermine American national security. They are taking them to enhance theirs. China is behaving as any rational geopolitical actor looking out for its vital interests should in a modern mercantilist age.
As China continues its rapid economic growth, the demand for fossil fuels will continue to intensify. As prices continue to rise, the transportation infrastructure upon which the American economy is based will make it increasingly difficult to transport goods to and from international markets. War will be more likely and America will increasingly become beholden to the resource nationalism and weapons of mass disruption of corrupt energy-rich regimes. Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Iraq and others of America’s top fifteen oil suppliers will increasingly have a vote on American affairs.
The second problem with conservative thought on clean energy and climate change is that no one on the right has advocated serious alternative solutions to the left’s policies. Now the only option is to choose between the left’s policies or the far left’s. It is no wonder that the right’s default action has been to steadfastly oppose them both. This is not acceptable and the right has thus far abdicated its responsibility on generating viable and necessary alternatives.
When Republicans argue for blocking carbon taxes, they rarely advocate alternatives like cap-and-trade or geoengineering. Many simply deny, against all apparent evidence from NASA’s satellites, that global warming is occurring. And this is even before any debate can begin about whether global warming is due to human activity.
This should be our generation’s Sputnik moment, in which both the right and left rise to the technological challenge of transforming our energy infrastructure to preserve American energy independence.
The right needs a better fact-based approach to both clean energy and climate change. Otherwise, the left will control future policy. And Republicans like me, would deserve the consequences — good or ill.