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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Clean Energy Race: Nationalism, Rhetoric or Realpolitik, Part 2

Originally posted at The Breakthrough Institute. Part 1 is here.

A second piece on nationalism in the context of the clean energy race was published on Mother Jones' blog MoJo, and is evidence that the growing body of discourse around this issue has struck a very resonant chord. In the post, entitled "Harnessing Nationalism," Kevin Drum offers poignant, if somewhat veiled, criticism of the rhetoric behind the "clean energy race" narrative.

Inspired by The New Republic's Bradford Plumer, the post starts with a lengthy quote whose primary point is this: the clean energy race is not a zero-sum competition because everyone stands to benefit if China makes a significant effort to reduce emissions by investing in clean technology.

First, as Drum puts it, Plumer's commentary may be an attempt at "intellectual honesty," but honesty doesn't make it completely accurate. True, the whole world will benefit from advancements in clean energy no matter where it comes from, but China is not motivated to compete in the clean tech industry by emissions reductions - it is driven by the potential for economic gain.

As a (rapidly) developing nation, economic development, not emissions targets, is the highest priority. Thus, the race is not about emissions, it is about whose economy stands to benefit from leadership in clean technology.

Drum views the clean energy race through "green" tinted glasses, as well, preferring the "race" rhetoric to the alternative: the apocalyptic narrative that has clearly failed to motivate effective climate change action. Rhetorically speaking, framing the need to reduce carbon emissions as a clean energy race is both more engaging and more productive. As he aptly declares:

If this kind of thing got us to the moon, maybe it can save the planet as well. I say we go along.
The clean energy race, however, is more than just a new and improved framing mechanism or encouragement of America's honed nationalistic tendencies - it is an economic truth. What Drum misses when he writes off the recent proliferation of clean energy articles as hype, is that this issue could both be an effective rhetorical tool as well as a humbling reality.

The main-stream media and editorial contributors are not the only writers expressing concern that America is sacrificing competitiveness in the clean tech industry. Recent reports from the Climate Group, the Center for American Progress and others report quantitative analysis that China (not to mention Japan, South Korea, and India) is accelerating its clean tech initiatives at unprecedented rates, especially in comparison to the U.S.

Although his language is flippant, Drum draws attention to an important criticism of the clean energy race narrative. It has the potential to be perceived not only as an example of over-exerted nationalism but also as an expression of xenophobia. Anti-China or anti-Asia sentiment could be an outgrowth of engaging in a clean energy competition, however, that is not the point of alerting policymakers and the general public to the fact that America is losing ground in a sector it should be dominating.

While Drum obliquely asserts that clean energy rhetoric paints the Chinese as "scary" "quasi-socialist...hordes," this is far from the intention. While the framing plays to American aspirations of greatness, it does not do so at the denigration of the Chinese. The point is that the U.S. needs to be competitive, not because the Chinese are bad guys, but because America is being challenged by a serious economic threat to its leadership in innovative sectors. The U.S has the ability to lead, but it is not currently living up to its potential.

Plumer and Drum are correct in terms of climate change. The clean energy race is effective rhetoric but it is not a zero-sum game since more clean energy technology is a win-win-win. Unlike the nuclear arms race - which left the world with an arsenal of supremely destructive weapons and dicey non-proliferation policy to negotiate - the clean energy race will only lead to innovation and eventually, significantly less carbon intensive energy supplies.

In fact, the clean energy race has repeatedly been compared to the "space race," a nation competition that also spurred innovation and technological advancements. The space race ended on the moon; it is still not clear where the clean energy race finish line will be.

From an economic stand-point, however, the clean energy race has much higher stakes. If America wins, the race is a productive means by which the U.S. can revitalize a struggling economy. The imperitive to "win" is strong since the U.S. stands to lose its status as the world's technology innovation leader and economic superpower.

Still, it is not quite a zero-sum situation. Full-fledged, healthy competition will spur innovation, resulting in measurable economic benefits for both countries and the rest of world. Thus, America must embrace this technology challenge, not because it must defeat China, but because it stands to gain from rising to the occasion and proving that it deserves to be a global economic leader.

1 comment:

Solar Charging said...

I think this is a very valid point that the US stands to gain by not only cutting emissions and energy use, but to turn that into the next industrial growth will be a great long lasting benefit.