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January 22, 2010

BILL MOYERS: One of the most difficult and important issues facing the country and the President seems completely off the agenda right now. Its energy, and where we get it. As you know, nothing came of that big global summit on climate change in Copenhagen last month. It simply fizzled, and once again the President tried to put the best face on another disappointment. As my friend, the environmental activist and author Bill Mckibben wrote this week, "The world came together and looked climate change fairly straight in the eye, and then its most powerful nations blinked."

So what happens now? And what can you and I do about an energy crisis with issues so complex and confusing. Here's one thing to do — read this book: "Who Turned Out the Lights?" your "Guided tour to the energy crisis" by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson of the non-profit research group

The book cuts through the jargon, gets down to the basics and presents options from across the political spectrum. You can consider it a breath of fresh air free of carbon emissions, filled with good ideas and a sense of humor. Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, welcome to the Journal.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to both of you. So question which country is guiltiest when it comes to releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, United States or China?

JEAN JOHNSON: It's a neck-and-neck race. You know, and I think it is helpful to think about the distinction there. You know, if you're talking about the accumulated greenhouse gases, which is what really leads to global warming, it's the United States and Europe. You know, we got a head start in all this industrialization. We've been using coal and natural gas for many years now. So, you know, we're the biggest contributors there. Per-person basis, you know, Americans really are using the energy. We're using-- 80 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuel. But in terms of the total emissions, because China is so huge, because they are building coal plants, because they are getting cars, because they are industrializing, they are now the biggest emitter of global warming emissions in the world. So, you know, depending on how you look at it, there's plenty of guilt there.

BILL MOYERS: You say in here that there are six reasons we have to act soon. What are the six reasons?

JEAN JOHNSON: Number one is that the United States needs more energy. The projections are that we're going to need about 25 percent more energy in the next couple of decades. If you look around, it's perfectly clear. We have more electronic gadgets than ever before. We're going to have more people in the United States. And all of us use energy every day.

SCOTT BITTLE: Number two is the world needs more energy, and it needs it even more than we do. World energy demand is projected to go up 40 percent over the next 20 years, largely because of what's happening in places like China and India as they grow and develop and become middle-class consumer societies. This is going to cause more competition for energy across the board—

JEAN JOHNSON: There's just one image that I like- that I think helps visualize it. And it's that in China, until recently, not that many people had a private car. If the Chinese will begin to have — own cars the way we do, it would put a billion cars on the planet. So if you're worried about global warming, you have to think about that. And even if you're not, you have to think about a billion Chinese drivers competing with Americans, competing with the Europeans, competing with the Indians for the oil that we can manage to get out of the ground and transmit it around the world. It is not going to be good for the price or the reliability of energy here.

BILL MOYERS: Number three?

JEAN JOHNSON: We are heavily dependent, about 80 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels, oil, coal, and natural gas. For oil and natural gas in particular more and more people around the world want them. There's only so much of it. It's expensive to get, and it's not going to be here forever. And we need to get started on the alternatives.

SCOTT BITTLE: Number four, climate change, which is the one most people hear about. The idea that, as most scientists accept, that the carbon dioxide we're putting out from use of fossil fuels is fundamentally changing the world's climate, and that is going to have an enormous impact on the world. And we're going to have to cope with it, and we're going to have to try and stabilize it.

JEAN JOHNSON: Number five is that our system for getting energy is much more precarious than most people realize. You know, I think most people know about the dangers of importing oil. And if there's a revolution someplace or a terrorist attack on a pipeline, this sends prices skyrocketing. The part of it that a lot of people don't realize is how precarious our electricity grid is. It's aging and creaking and, you know, we're at risk with the natural gas transport lines. So we really need to invest so it's not as precarious as it really is now.

SCOTT BITTLE: Finally, too much of our energy comes from countries that essentially don't like us or at least we have challenges with. If you look at world oil reserves, 60 percent of them are in the Middle East. Only two or three percent are in the United States. If we're going to keep using oil, we're going to have to keep getting it from the Middle East. And that's going to affect our politics and our national policies.

BILL MOYERS: The other night I read a story about how we are running out of energy. We are, at some point, going to run out of fossil fuels. And then the next morning I pick up the Financial Times and there's a story about the discovery of a huge new field off the coast of Africa. And I say, "Wait a minute. I'm getting contradictory messages from the universe here."

JEAN JOHNSON: Well, we do discover more, and there's more out there to be discovered. I think the problem is scale. You know, for example, the United States runs through more than seven billion barrels of oil a year in a good year, in 2007. So there may be a lot of oil out there, but it's- given how quickly Americans go through it and given how quickly people around the world are beginning to go through it, we do need to have a more diverse supply.

SCOTT BITTLE: Also, we found possibly most of the cheap oil. We're going to have to go to places like the Arctic. We're going to have to go to deep water wells under the ocean now to get the reserves that remain. The stuff that's easy to find we've found. The stuff we're finding is harder to get.

BILL MOYERS: I'm reminded when I read the book of the energy crisis we experienced in '73 when OPEC raised the prices. Oil prices soared. 1978, during the Iranian Revolution prices jumped again. Prices jumped after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Or the long gas lines after Hurricane Katrina. And when I think about those experiences and see us repeating the same sense of denial or consternation or frustration or incapacity, inaction, you invoke Bill Murray in that movie "Groundhog Day".

SCOTT BITTLE: Well, we're just like Bill Murray who was, in that movie, doomed to live the same day over and over again until he got it right.

We're living the same day over and over again on energy. We keep making the same mistakes. When prices go up, all of the sudden we panic. We're willing to change. We make these dramatic, you know, short-term changes. And then when prices go down again, we forget all about it. And one of the problems is that all the things you talked about were short-term events, you know, very specific driven events that raised prices. Now we're looking at some very serious long-term trends in both demand and in the environmental front. These are not going to go away. If thing- they are long-term changes in how the world can get energy and how it should get energy. We can't assume they're going to go away 'cause they're not.

JEAN JOHNSON: This is also an issue where Americans are — and I include myself in this before we started work on this — we're pitifully informed. You know, about four out of ten Americans cannot even name a fossil fuel. So you really wonder how they're following this whole debate about fossil fuels and global warming. I actually think it would improve the debate if we sort of stopped pointing with alarm about all the things that could go wrong and really started getting people talking about how we're going to generate electricity. What are we going to do about our cars? What are we going to do about our houses? Look at our choices here. They all have pros and cons.

SCOTT BITTLE: And I think that's one of the ways in which the debate that we're currently having is so unhelpful to most people in that everyone is talking about percentages and numbers. Should we cut greenhouse gases 20 percent or 17 percent? And it makes a huge difference between the two. Should it be based on 1990 or 2005? Should it be 350 parts per million of carbon? No, maybe it's 450 parts per million.

BILL MOYERS: And I'm lost already.

SCOTT BITTLE: And what it comes down to, though, are a few concrete choices, as Jean was saying. What kind of power plants do we want to build? And everything branches out from that. What do we put in our cars? Do we want to stay with a liquid fuel in our cars like gasoline or Biofuels or liquefied natural gas? In which case our-- the way we drive doesn't change that much. Or do we move to electricity? In which chase we need to build an infrastructure for that. We can do these things as soon as we make the choice for what we want to do. But, first, you have to lay options out for people and have- so they can understand the pros and cons.

JEAN JOHNSON: You know, it's interesting. In this country we are so used to taking energy for granted. We flip on a switch and it's there. We have had the advantage in our economy of cheap energy for a long, long time. But things are changing. And the climate debate, you know, really absorbs a lot of the political attention. But we really want to shine a light on some of the other reasons that Americans need to pay attention to this.

BILL MOYERS: You talk about viewing with alarm. When I got to the end of your book to a section you call "The Last Picture Show," I was smiling because it's been a long time since I remembered that old 1973 sci-fi movie "Soylent Green" starring Charlton Heston. And my favorite all-time great character actor Edward G. Robinson.

EDWARD ROBINSON as SOL ROTH: Why. In my day. You could buy meat anywhere. Eggs. They had. Real butter. Fresh lettuce in the stores.

CHARLETON HESTON as ROBERT THORN: I know. Sol. You told me before.

EDWARD ROBINSON as SOL ROTH: How can anything survive in a climate like this? A heat wave all year long.

BILL MOYERS: You used that to make a point.

SCOTT BITTLE: The point is that there-- Hollywood has provided us with several visions of a horrible environmental future. "Soylent Green" is one of the most compelling. What would happen basically if we do nothing? Heston and Edward G. Robinson are living in a New York City that is broiling hot, that is crowded, that is poor, that people resort to eating soylent green, which I don't want to spoil the movie, but let's just say the rules on nutritional labels have been dramatically relaxed. And it raises the possibility that human decency itself doesn't survive this kind of catastrophic climate change.

JEAN JOHNSON: The other — the opposite is- we bring up the "Mad Max."

BILL MOYERS: That's the trilogy with--


BILL MOYERS: --Mel Gibson.

JEAN JOHNSON: Where human beings have just- in living in this degraded civilization because they're so desperate for oil. So, you know, how people- again, human decency is sort of at stake because there's this, you know, need for energy.

SCOTT BITTLE: The thing about "Mad Max", the beauty of "Mad Max," is it poses that question that's- lots of people have in the back of their minds, which is, When we run out of energy, do we run out of civilization as well? And the answer is we don't have to run out of energy. There are lots of alternatives. They don't have to be the ones we use now. The ones we use now aren't going to go away soon. But they are finite. But we have lots of options here. What we have to do is be smart about it now, and the worst-case scenario never comes.

BILL MOYERS: So is Ed Harris in "Apollo 13" a good model for us as we go forward?

SCOTT BITTLE: I think he's an excellent model for us because he's focused on the practicalities.

TOM HANKS as JIM LOVELL: Houston? We are venting something out into space. I can see it outside of window one right now.

SCOTT BITTLE: It's a movie about problem solving. And there's this anthem that Ed Harris keeps repeating through the movie. "Let's work the problem, people."

ED HARRIS as GENE KRANZ: Let's work the problem, people. Let's not make things worse by guessing.

JEAN JOHNSON: I think the issue there is you had — have a terrible emergency with these astronauts loose in space with no way to come home. And yet through enterprise, through ingenuity, through cooperation, putting the arguing aside for a bit, they tried and tried and tried and were able to come up with some solutions and bring the astronauts home.

SCOTT BITTLE: There's another wonderful scene in that movie where they have to make — basically put a square peg in a round hole to keep the oxygen going for the astronauts. And they dump a bunch of stuff on the table, said, "This is what's in the spaceship. You know, this is what we have to work with." And they start taking it apart and working with it. That's really more the kind of debate we need because, fundamentally, these are practical considerations. These are decisions about technology. They're decisions about economics. We're having a discussion about politics. And we're having a discussion about belief systems and that sort of thing. And eventually you have to cut through that and get to how do we actually do this? How do you build this new energy world with the materials we have at hand?

JEAN JOHNSON: It's an issue that's going to challenge us to be practical, to weigh pros and cons, not to be gullible and, you know, pretend that some easy answer's going — whether, you know, where it's the left or the right, the environmentalists or the "drill, baby, drill" group. You know, this- these perfect little answers, you need to be very dubious about those. But this is what makes it — I think this is an issue where Americans' practicality, our sense of innovation, our sense of fairness, our sense of let's see what we can do right now, let's be pragmatic about this. If we can pull those to the fore, we can address this issue.

BILL MOYERS: The book is "Who Turned Out the Lights?: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis." And the guides are Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson. Thank you both for being with me on the Journal.

JEAN JOHNSON: Thank you.

SCOTT BITTLE: Thank you.
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