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Our Next President Must Embrace Clean Technology


By Will Marshall and Jan Mazurek
San Jose Mercury News
February 3, 2008


As the presidential candidates gird for Super Tuesday,
economic anxiety has surged into the center of the 2008
campaign. Exit polls from Tuesday's Florida primary show the
economy was by far the voters' top concern, dwarfing Iraq,
immigration and terrorism.

Recession jitters are only part of the story. The public's
deeper worries stem from the perceived impact of global
competition on their jobs and economic security. Stoking such
fears are "populist" politicians and cable-TV demagogues who
claim that trade and outsourcing are destroying the American
middle class.

Progressive candidates ought to reject this gloomy narrative
and focus instead on how American employers and workers can
win in global markets. One place to look for inspiration is
Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs and venture capitalists
are busy launching a clean-technology revolution.

There's a growing consensus that modernizing the nation's
energy policies is essential to reducing our fossil-fuel
dependence and halting the catastrophe that is man-made
climate change. But a third, equally powerful rationale is
emerging: the development of clean-energy technology can
revitalize our nation's sagging economy.

Put simply, clean-energy technology -- or "clean tech" --
could become the next great engine of the U.S. economy,
generating jobs and economic opportunities on a transformative
scale. The scope of clean tech's economic potential becomes
clear when you think about the sheer magnitude of the tasks at
hand. We are slowly but steadily reinventing our carbon-based
economy, changing the way we heat our homes, light our
workplaces, and propel our vehicles. Creating the technology,
the physical infrastructure and the myriad support networks
for a clean-energy economy will generate billions of dollars
in new business activity and millions of new jobs.

Peter Beadle, president of Greenjobs.com, predicts that as
many as 2 million people could be employed by 2020 in the
solar-energy sector alone. Already, the market for cleaner
fuels and environmentally friendly devices accounts for
between 20 percent and 25 percent of all global energy
investment. The Cleantech Network reports that the clean-tech
market raised $3.9 billion in start-up capital in North
America alone in 2007. Not surprisingly, some of clean tech's
biggest proponents are the same entrepreneurs behind earlier
venture-funded breakthroughs in computing, telecommunications
and the Internet.

The surge of clean-tech investment belies conservative claims
that cleaning up our environment will somehow imperil our
economy. But it also offers a hopeful vision of American
ingenuity and enterprise to counter the economic defeatism
peddled by anti-trade oracles such as Lou Dobbs.

What's holding us back today is not Chinese imports or Mexican
immigrants, but backward energy policies in Washington. By
ceding the initiative in this vital area to Europe and East
Asia, we have allowed clean-tech leadership to migrate abroad.
Consider this: California was the birthplace of wind-power
technology, but Europe now makes 90 percent of the world's
wind turbines. And while the United States was once the
largest manufacturer of solar photovoltaic cells, Japan now
produces more than twice as many.

That's why our country badly needs a president committed to
making the United States the world's undisputed leader in
clean energy and technology. U.S. entrepreneurs can't do the
job alone; they need smart public policies to create an
enabling framework for more rapid clean-tech innovation.

Our next president must do what President Bush won't -- impose
a mandatory, economy-wide cap on carbon emissions. Such a cap,
combined with an emissions-trading market, would put a price
on carbon and thereby create a profit motive for companies to
burn less fossil fuel.

Fortunately, three of the four top presidential contenders --
Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as
Republican John McCain -- strongly support such a "cap and
trade" approach. In effect, a cap-and-trade system and
clean-tech investment offer a one-two punch for curbing
pollution and spurring growth. That's because cap and trade
uses market forces to raise the costs of burning dirty fuels,
while the development of clean tech promises to bring down the
costs of alternative energy sources.

Clean tech isn't a panacea for today's economic insecurities.
But it does offer an answer to the anxious question candidates
are hearing on the stump: "How can the United States create
and keep good jobs here at home?" Right now, Americans need to
be reassured -- not alarmed -- about our economy's ability to
generate the high-wage jobs that can sustain our high living
standards. What's more, as clean tech spreads it can make all
U.S. companies, new and old, more energy efficient, just as
the diffusion of information technology in the 1990s made them
more productive.

All this makes the clean tech imperative a winning message in
this election year.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy
Institute. Jan Mazurek has directed the Progressive Policy
Institute's Center for Clean Technology since 2001. They wrote
this article for the Mercury News.

 

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