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17th September 2008 Charles J. Brown
12:45 pm

Beyond November: David Sandalow


The Connect U.S. Fund has launched a new two-year initiative to help shape debate during the upcoming Presidential transition.  As part of this effort, they’ve asked leading thinkers and advocates to talk about what should be the top two or three foreign policy priorities for the next President.  They’ve also kindly allowed us to cross-post the responses here.

The series took a brief hiatus during the conventions, but it’s back and will continue from now until the election.  Today, we’ll hear from David Sandalow.  You can find the previous posts here.  Thanks again to Heather Hamilton and Eric Schwartz for making the cross-postings happen.

The dependence of our cars and trucks on oil weakens the United States and constrains our foreign policy.  The buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere threatens our national security and imperils the planet.  The next President has an unprecedented opportunity to tackle both problems.

Today, 96 percent of the energy in our cars and trucks comes from oil.  That dependence lies at the heart of many problems.  Oil dependence empowers our enemies, endangers our men and women in uniform and undermines democracy around the world.  It plays a central role in global warming. It strains family budgets when world oil prices rise.

(”Drill here, drill now” is not the answer.  The nonpartisan Energy Information Agency says drilling in new areas offshore would add roughly 0.3% to global oil supplies in 10 years, with little if any impact on price. Does anyone think Ahmadinejad and Chavez are quaking in their boots at the thought of the US drilling in additional areas offshore?  Offshore drilling is weak.  It’s like walking an extra 20 feet per day to lose weight.  Let’s hope our leaders have the courage to take more powerful steps to help keep the United States strong.)

And we face an even more epic problem.  Today, concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere are at their highest level in human history — and rising sharply.  Unless we change course, rising sea levels, more frequent storms, more severe droughts and floods, the spread of tropical disease and forest loss will threaten lives and livelihoods around the world.  In the words of a dozen retired US military commanders including General Anthony Zinni (USMC-Ret.), “Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world and presents significant national security challenges for the United States.”

Depressed?

There’s good news.  Solving these problems is the economic opportunity of the century.

From China to northern Europe to Silicon Valley, fortunes are already being made in renewable energy.  Thousands of companies are cutting emissions while increasing profits by improving energy efficiency and ending energy waste.  “Green collar jobs” are beginning to revitalize US cities.  Plug-in electric vehicles could revitalize the US car industry.

What should the next President do?  First, launch a crash program to end the utter dependence of our cars and trucks on oil.  Tax incentives, federal procurement and federal research and development funding should be marshaled to put millions of plug-in electric vehicles on the road soon.  The same tools should be used for advanced biofuels, dramatic improvements in fuel efficiency, natural gas vehicles and mass transit.

For decades, the U.S. government has heavily subsidized oil consumption.  (How does one value the subsidy to a commodity from having the US President fly to Saudi Arabia to try to talk the down its price?  Although the most recent effort by a US President to do this was unsuccessful, it has been a priority of Presidents and Cabinet secretaries of both parties for generations to promote the free flow of cheap oil around the world.)  The cost of programs to help break our oil addiction will be small in comparison.

In launching these programs, we should work closely with other oil-consuming nations.  Traditional oil diplomacy means securing adequate and reliable supplies.  21st century oil diplomacy should have an additional objective: reducing dependence in all nations.

At the same, the US must immediately take comprehensive steps to fight global warming.  In the past several years, dozens of States and hundreds of US cities have passed laws to control emissions of heat-trapping gases.  It is long past time for the federal government to do the same.  The next President should work with Congress to pass such legislation as a top priority, giving the US the strength to participate credibly in international global warming negotiations.

Neither oil dependence nor global warming can be solved overnight.  But dramatic progress is possible.  The unusually broad consensus concerning the national security threats from oil dependence, growing awareness of global warming, sharp rise in public attention as a result of high oil prices, and breakthroughs in clean energy technologies such as solar power and lithium ion batteries - in combination - create an unprecedented opportunity for change.

The transition to a clean energy economy will shape the first part of this century.  The next President can make history by setting the United States on the right course.

David Sandalow is Energy & Environment Scholar and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  He is a former assistant secretary of state and senior director on the National Security Council staff.  He is the author of Freedom from Oil (McGraw-Hill 2007).

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 17th, 2008 at 12:45 pm and is filed under foreign policy, globalization, politics. It is tagged under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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