This morning, we woke up to the news that President-elect Donald Trump had nominated former Texas Governor Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy. Social media was instantly abuzz with the irony: In the 2012 Republican primary, candidate Perry had vowed to kill this very agency, although he infamously couldn’t remember its name.
Next came comparisons to the two most recent energy secretaries: Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate physicist, and Ernest J. Moniz, a distinguished nuclear physicist from M.I.T. By contrast, Perry was his class “social secretary” and “Yell Leader” at Texas A&M, on the way to earning a bachelor’s degree in animal science.
But Perry’s nomination is particularly notable in light of the current episode of “Years of Living Dangerously,” which premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel. With help from Sigourney Weaver and America Ferrera, “Years” examines the diverging climate-response paths of the world’s two largest polluters – China and the US.
Viewers may be surprised to learn that China is taking enormous steps in transforming its economy onto a post-carbon footing. Whatever we may think about the alleged “War on Coal” here in the States, China makes no bones about it. Just last year, China abandoned construction on thirty new coal plants. Together, those plants would have had a greater generating capacity than all of Great Britain. And they’ve become the largest worldwide producer of solar electric power.
By contrast with A&M “social-secretary” Perry, China has entrusted its energy program to Premier Li Keqiang, the second most senior leader in China, ranked by Forbes as the 12th “Most Powerful Person” in the world.
How are they doing it? “Years” explores China’s new carbon “cap & trade” program which is being rolled out nationwide next year. The CEO of China Power & Light offered Weaver a perspective echoed by virtually everyone she spoke to: “I actually welcome the clarity brought about by a price on carbon. It makes our job much easier….”
Back in the U.S., actor America Ferrera explores a very different struggle. Where pollution is unpriced, it is the poor and powerless who suffer the worst impacts – respiratory diseases and other ills. Ferrera’s trail takes her to Waukegan, Illinois, where one of the oldest coal-fired power plants in the country stands cheek-to-jowl with a Latino and African-American community. In Waukegan, one-third of all children suffer from asthma.
Ferrera follows a citizen action group seeking desperately to address municipal leaders and the plant’s corporate owner, NRG Energy. They’re seeking relief from the pollution that is sickening their community. And we feel the maddening frustration of citizen activists rebuffed by a wall of rejection from those in power. Even their cleverest strategy, becoming small shareholders and packing the NRG annual meeting, produces only empty promises that the CEO will visit Waukegan at some future date.
But in fact, the Waukegan story is repeated in study after study across the US. The United Church of Christ has found over more than 20 years that racial minorities and poorer communities comprise the majority of populations living near hazardous waste facilities. The University of Pennsylvania has shown that African-American communities are twice as likely to suffer toxic accidents as in other places. And UCLA found that low-income and minority children are disproportionately exposed to hazardous vehicle exhaust. Poor kids and children of color – these are the ones who get the asthma and emphysema, and who live with hazardous toxins.
Despite this depressing tale, we take some real hope from the nexus of today’s news about Gov. Perry and the narrative explored by “Years.”
First, China is moving ahead aggressively on climate, and is becoming the world leader in clean energy. Of course, we all benefit from a world with fewer greenhouse gases, no matter where we live. But of equal importance, competitive impulses will surely lead the US eventually to take steps to salvage some leadership in the energy of the future, rather than squeezing every penny from an aging oil industry.
And second, the looming prospect of an American petro-state cabinet typified by Perry at Energy, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson at State, and Oklahoma oil champion Scott Pruitt at EPA stands to spur citizen action groups – like those in Waukegan – in every community.
It’s time for citizens to demand that our leaders assert our country’s greatness by moving forward into the clean economy that the world desperately needs. And in the process, to hear the cries – and wheezes – of our neighbors in poorer communities. Maybe then, we can call ourselves “great” again.