Sputnik's Lesson: Why the U.S. Can't Afford To Sit Out The Green Technology Revolution


Nearly five decades ago, JFK challenged us to go to the moon; not because it was easy, but because it was hard. He called it a challenge Americans were "willing to accept," "unwilling to postpone" and one which they intended to win. History has recorded the scale of that triumph. The American space program was a massive undertaking. It cost billions of dollars and required the bipartisan cooperation of our nation's top policymakers. Yet, the rewards of a successful space mission were not primarily financial or economic; they weren't exclusively social or military. There were political benefits of a successful mission, to be sure, but the real fuel behind America's space program was the sense of hope and inspiration that it gave to millions of ordinary Americans. If the United States could send a man to the moon, so the thinking went, what couldn't our nation do? America had then — and still has now — the brightest minds on the planet, one of the freest and most dynamic economies in human history and a unique sense of possibility and hope seared into the DNA of every citizen.

So, why is it that we're falling so far behind in the space race of the 21st century — the development and deployment of green energy technology?

In a speech earlier this summer, President Obama stated, "There's no longer a question about whether the jobs and the industries of the 21st century will be centered around clean, renewable energy. The only question is: Which country will create these jobs and these industries?" And, in an op-ed in The Washington Post last week, GE CEO Jeff Immelt and venture capitalist John Doerr wrote of green technology, "There is no topic of greater importance to America's economic future. The question is whether the United States will lead or lag in tomorrow's global energy markets. And the difference between these two futures is dramatic."

As Immelt and Doerr pointed out in their piece, the world's five leading Internet technology companies are all American. "But when it comes to wind power, the most mature of the clean-energy sectors, of the top five manufacturers only one is American. Similarly, the United States is home to only one of the 10 largest solar panel producers in the world and two of the top 10 advanced battery manufacturers."

At Business Roundtable, we believe that's simply an unacceptable position for the world's most prosperous nation. With the possibility of Congress voting to place a price on carbon, our jobs and our continued economic prosperity ride on our ability to lead the way in developing those technologies. As we outlined in our recently released economic modeling study, a successful strategy for reducing U.S. emissions and protecting future economic growth must offer incentives and eliminate barriers to the development and deployment of tomorrow's energy technologies — right here in the United States. Yet, it's Europe and Asia — especially China — that have been establishing dominance in this sector.

Policymakers must incentivize the private sector with sensible policy leadership to get our clean energy sector moving, but we should be careful to avoid the protectionism of other countries. China, for instance, has erected unfair barriers to competition that should be removed. The U.S. must also refrain from China's top-down model of green technology development. Rather, America's strength lies in the ability of our workers and companies to innovate new solutions — all that is needed are the right investments and policies to spark entrepreneurship.

In 1957, the Soviet Union's dominance in the space race seemed assured with the successful launch of Sputnik and the failure of the U.S. Vanguard project. Our nation could have given up then. Instead, we created NASA and passed the National Defense Education Act within a year. By 1959, we initiated our first manned space program and, within a decade, we achieved the impossible when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon.

The United States sets out on the sustainable technology challenge from a similar underdog position, yet we believe the United States can — and must — assert itself as a global leader in the cleaner, greener technology space. The path is challenging, but no more challenging than sending humans to the moon. The consequences of inaction far outweigh the investments when it comes to tomorrow's technologies.

Our nation today stands at a crossroads — we can become the world's foremost exporter of alternative energy technologies, or we can become a net importer and lag behind other nations. The former option is practical, possible and achievable, but only if we seize the moment. President Kennedy once said, "The American, by nature, is optimistic. He is experimental, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly." We couldn't agree more, and we know that America is ready to accept this call to greatness. Our nation is ready to meet this challenge and lead.

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