The Politics of Energy Democracy

Majority of voters favor gasoline-car phaseout. But all-electric goal faces tough opposition.


Jared Diamond,

May, 2016

When asked to summarize the political impact of climate change, the economist Joseph Stiglitz has observed that it is “the most disruptive idea to hit the world since the printing press” and that it should have “more than a moment of moral force.” He has also observed that the notion of energy democracy “makes a great deal of sense.”

In his forthcoming book, The Party’s Over, Stiglitz examines this idea, which he calls electric-car democracy, and explores it in relation to two pressing questions: how to transition away from oil, and how to ensure that the transition will be as painless as possible. He has been doing this work for the last decade, and his conclusions are worth considering even if – like many previous attempts – it is not in the cards to solve these pressing problems in that time frame.

One of the most important lessons we can draw from the history of the petroleum industry is that it is always a risky business to leave a business and embark on a new one, in any environment. This reality can be taken as a “red flag” indicating the need for caution before embarking on a major social or political change.

As we have seen in recent years, there is no evidence of any political progress in addressing the climate debate in the United States. In fact, the two most important issues, fossil fuels and climate, have been effectively ignored by Congress and the President. This is not to say that the environmental community as a whole has been entirely ineffective, but we as a group have been ineffectual because we have not been working with the power of a large mass of citizens — those that can make political and social change — in the United States. We can see that today, and we can see that even in recent months.

Even though voters rejected the Keystone XL pipeline in November, it’s worth remembering that the project had been in many ways a demonstration project, with a grand vision for connecting oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico to the Alberta tar sands, and an important opportunity to transform the energy sector in the US. There is every reason to believe that they would have been a game changer, and that

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