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Forum urges decisive action on sustainability

John Tierney | Thursday, September 25, 2008

The United States has the responsibility to do something to make its energy situation more sustainable, panelists at the Notre Dame Forum on Sustainable Energy said Wednesday.

“We’re stuck right now and we’re really not doing anything,” General Electric chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt said. “And as everybody in this room knows, to do something you have to do something.”

The discussion of what exactly must be done to improve America’s energy situation ranged from individuals taking small personal steps to governments working to develop an energy policy. Each panelist echoed Immelt’s theme that action is a necessity.

“The cost of inaction is what we face everyday,” Immelt said.

The action that the panelists urged will involve all of society.

“If we’re going to solve something this big, we’re going to have to work together,” Immelt said.

While solving the problems of the energy crisis requires effort, it is possible, he said.

“Sustainability is a solvable problem. There’s no reason to think about this as impossible,” Immelt said.

But solving the problems must be accomplished by working through a system, Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor Ernest Moniz said.

“We’ll have to move a very complex system – I don’t mean technologically – I mean politically forward,” he said. “We’re sitting here watching … a train wreck instead of taking action.”

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., who created the “New Energy Economy” in Colorado, endorses a program he calls the “5 E’s” to bring about energy reform. America needs an energy policy that can help us achieve energy security, environmental security, economic security, education and equity, so that “we don’t build our energy policy on the backs of the poor,” he said.

Majora Carter, the founder of Sustainable South Bronx, has devoted her career to working on the impact of the energy policy on the poor.

“The current [environmental] crisis has been felt in the ghettos of our cities for decades,” she said. “Whatever economic progress we’ve experienced has come on the back of our nation’s poor.”

Building industrial infrastructure that causes pollution in areas inhabited mostly by the poor causes the poor to be more likely to develop health conditions such as asmtha or mental disabilities. It also leads the poor to be more likely to wind up in jail, Carter said.

But organizations like Sustainable South Bronx have the potential to get the poor involved in cleaning up their communities, which leads them to feel more hopeful about their role in society, Carter said.

“If you know that you have nothing to offer or anything to gain by being a part of a community … violence is going to happen,” she said.

Once former convicts become green collar workers, Carter said they “become alive to the world again.”

“They know that they have traveled from societal burden to environmental heroes,” she said.

In her opening remarks, Carter connected the mission of environmental justice to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. What Martin Luther King, Jr. “saw [in his dream] was a future that was green for us all, my friends,” Carter said.

Much like the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the new movement for sustainable energy is about challenging America, she said, and challenging America takes effective leadership.

“I think you need leadership to enunciate a national energy policy,” Ritter said.

Immelt tied the need for leadership to the current presidential campaign.

“We need leadership,” he said. “The next president has to say clearly what he believes. And there can’t be caveats.”

Senior Lourdes Long, president and founding member of GreeND, echoed the need for leadership in energy issues. “Go out and vote,” she advised students.

Long also encouraged students to take a leadership role at the grass-roots level.

“Talk to somebody who wasn’t here” about the issues of sustainable energy and their impact on the future, she said.

It’s time for America to step up on the energy issue, Carter said.

“Aren’t we tired of building tributes to all of our collective failures and don’t we want to build monuments to hope and possibility?” she asked.

The current absence of an energy policy is an American failure, Immelt said, and this failure has consequences.

“The worst of all is we have no energy policy, no call to arms and that people are afraid,” he said. “People have a lot to be afraid about.”

What the country needs is for a leader to step up and provide an energy policy, Immelt said. “Right now we have a vacuum and that makes people afraid,” he said.

But the energy policy that Immelt suggested would not limit development to certain technologies.

“Let freedom reign,” he said. “I wouldn’t specify. Then the entrepreneurial capital will do things we’ve never seen before.”

Americans can solve this problem, Carter said.

“It’s not like this is the first time America has gone through a crisis, guys,” she said, referencing World War II. “We need to call on the great resources we have, [including the] American people, and “expect them to rise to the challenge and the occasion.”

For Americans to take action, Ritter said we need to view energy use as something that has an impact.

“We need to think about it in terms of scarcity,” he said. “We need to make a case to the people of this country that we have something at stake.”

Ritter said he thinks the younger generations need to take ownership of the energy problem. He said one night he woke up and thought, “My children aren’t thinking about climate change right now, they’re out clubbing.”

“This is your problem and it’s my problem,” he said. “You need to understand you’re part of the solution too.”

The energy problem is something that transcends individuals’ backgrounds. While Carter spoke about the issue very emotionally, Immelt said that the closest he ever came to spending time outdoors was on the golf course.

Ritter was a prosecutor running for governor when he realized that “the state of Colorado wasn’t doing anything we should be,” he said.

“We stood by and watched.”

He decided to make energy reform a central component of his campaign, and has found that “people were yearning for this to happen,” he told The Observer after the forum.

No matter what perspective the panelists brought to the energy issue, however, they agreed that the issue should be a personal one for students.

“It’s your world,” Moniz said.

Immelt said students can bring any perspective to the energy issue and be able to see that their action is necessary.

“Think about this in terms of what’s in your heart and what’s in your head,” he said. “If you study what’s going on, you’ll come to a conclusion that this is what’s important.”

Notre Dame’s Energy Use

Forum moderator Anne Thompson, the chief environmental affairs correspondent for NBC News (NBC News is a division of NBC Universal, which is a subsidiary of Immelt’s General Electric) announced at the conclusion of the forum that Notre Dame, which received a D- in a sustainability two years ago, received a B- in the same study released today. The University’s students received an A for their involvement in the issue.

“It’s a great acknowledgement of what we’ve done,” Long said about the grade after the forum. “But we’re doing a helluva lot more than that. We don’t think we need to use report cards to evaluate our programs.”

Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves said the analysis for the grade is flawed. He said that of the nine areas graded, Notre Dame received poor marks in “shareholder engagement” and “endowment transparency.” He explained he didn’t think these two areas should be included, because, “to me, that’s not an environmental issue.”

Affleck-Graves praised the students who have taken leadership on energy issues on campus. “They should be an inspiration to everybody,” he said.

Aaron Steiner contributed to this report.