Bill Richardson has long been one of the nation's most powerful champions of clean energy: As governor of New Mexico, he pioneered strong renewable power standards, signed the Kyoto Protocol, and incentivized investment in alternative energy. As a presidential candidate in 2007, he called for nothing short of an energy revolution, and campaigned behind the most ambitious renewable energy policy platform ever put forward by a national politician.
So I was hardly surprised to hear Richardson call for an "Arab Spring" for the environment today, urging younger generations to take to social media to push back against the fossil fuel industry and fight for cleaner energy.
This morning, I sat down with Richardson, who also served as U.S. Energy Secretary under Bill Clinton, to discuss energy, politics, and environmentalism, along with a couple other reporters. The former governor is in Abu Dhabi to lend his expertise to the host of heads of state, policymakers and cleantech companies who travel to the oil-rich United Arab Emirates to participate in the annual World Future Energy Summit.
Renewable energy is "inevitable"
"Renewable energy is the future," Richardson said, bluntly, at the beginning of our talk. "It is the most valuable energy source. That has always been my view."
And he's optimistic that the conditions for clean energy, though perhaps less than perfect at the moment, are improving rapidly. High energy prices, volatility in oil markets, and the growing consensus around renewables worldwide is driving the change, he said.
"118 countries have renewable energy commitments. Half of those are in the developing world." The dominance of clean energy is "inevitable", he said.
Our discussion then turned to how we might more rapidly precipitate that change, and how the U.S. government must continue to play an active role in developing renewable energy.
"Government should be a catalyst. It can't sit back and not be engaged. The role of government is to establish with the private sector, with NGOs, with environmental organizations, public-private partnerships. I'm a strong believer in that. Secondly, the government should use its tax system through incentives. And I think it should go one step further, as I did in New Mexico, and make investments," Richardson said. "I do see a very active role for government, and it should continue. Otherwise, we're gong to lose our competition to China. Look at what China's doing. They're huge investors in their own private sector development. If we give that up, I believe it's a huge mistake."
Time for an 'Arab Spring' for the environment
But people must continue to put pressure on the government to support clean energy and environmentally sound policy—and the younger generation should come out in greater force.
"There has to be a way that young people, through social media, send dramatically strong messages to not just policymakers, but to institutions, demanding the protection of air and wildlife," Richardson said. "It'd be sort of like an 'Arab Spring' for the environment. That's something I've been advocating."
And if they're going to fight for just one policy idea, perhaps they would rally behind Richardson's top choice for proliferating clean power, a renewable energy standard.
"What is the single most important piece of legislation? My view is a mandate for renewable portfolio standards. That America by the year 2020, be 30%. Like California is now. I think it'd be attainable, and it basically tells our utilities that you have to make this happen."
Richardson also cautioned against focusing the conversation too much on energy technologies in making the case for expanding renewables.
"Don't just talk about solar and wind, talk about protecting land and water," he said. "You can't just say the environment is jobs and the economy. It's also about protecting our land and water. And use that argument as a totality argument."
And if efforts continue to stall at the federal level, it's up to the states to support cleaner energy.
"If your federal government is not acting, is not being responsible to the environment—like in the Bush Administration, when they said, well, we're not going to abide by the Kyoto Treaty—defy the federal government. And set up your own standards. We approved a renewable portfolio standard. We mandated the Kyoto Protocol targets. There's nothing illegal about that; I just think that's progressive government."