Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Crisis Management

Today's New York Times is filled with articles on energy, including an interesting one describing the industry's efforts to dig itself out of its current public relations hole. I was struck, however, by a quote in Tom Friedman's column (Times Select required,) which advocated a third-party candidacy to deal with our energy problems. He cites David Rothkampf, a historian who suggests our system is so broken it can't even respond in a crisis. There are many reasons why that might be so, but it is a distressing notion for a country that has always prided itself on rising to challenges, however short-sighted we might seem at other times.

Part of the problem is that there's been no general agreement on how we arrived at this juncture, and little effort to create consensus on this as a necessary foundation to any solution. This requires looking beyond our energy habits at basic changes in metropolitan population and employment distribution, as well as the intended and unintended consequences of three decades of federal and state environmental policies. This is not an argument for rolling back those standards, which have done good work in many places, but for understanding how they have helped to shape our present quandary.

We also need to agree on the basic elements of a solution, at the level of the criteria it must meet, rather than the specifics it must include. First, it must recognize the large "time constant" of the system, and the implementation lags this creates. Any response must incorporate short-, medium- and long-term elements that take this inertia into account. Second, it must hew to something akin to a modern restatement of the Hippocratic Oath: "First, do no harm." In this context, that means that we cannot create disincentives on the production of conventional energy in this country, while trying to foster alternatives that will only be capable of covering incremental demand, but not backfilling for base supply for many years. It must also balance supply and demand-side initiatives, leveraging longer-term technology options and nearer-term behavioral changes.

Finally, any solution that has a chance of succeeding must be as bi-partisan as our foreign policy used to be. It will need to enjoy sufficiently broad support to endure changes in Congress and the arrival of new administrations. That is perhaps the tallest order of all.

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