Liberty Bonds: Bringing Ordinary People into the Energy Transition

What can start a serious and rapid transition to renewable energy and thus to a reduction of global warming?
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What can start a serious and rapid transition to renewable energy and thus to a reduction of global warming?

Looking back to the early 1980s, I recall that ending the Cold War was widely assumed to be impossible. Several changes broke the logjam, including the needs, vision and daring of Mikhail Gorbachev. On the US side, despite Reagan's early rhetoric as President, we had the "nuclear freeze" movement with a campaign of local initiatives culminating in a monster rally in Central Park , plus the publication of Jonathan Schell's book about nuclear abolition, The Fate of the Earth (all in 1982), a TV movie about the ghastly effects of a nuclear strike on the heartland U.S. ("The Day After," broadcast to a huge audience in 1983), the pioneering of citizen diplomacy (early 1980s), an astonishing summit meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan (in Reykjavik, in1986), and "Soviets Meet Middle America" (part of an extensive exchange program, begun in 1988).
I was able to play a little role when a wealthy San Francisco Bay Area entrepreneur and philanthropist invited me to work with him through a new foundation, which was dedicated to the single goal of helping to end the Cold War standoff. When I responded to this offer by initially expressing the conventional view that ending the Cold War would be very difficult, he said, "Craig, I know it's impossible, but it's necessary." My admiration for his initiative led to a pair of books (Citizen Summitry and Securing Our Planet), financial support for some thirty groups, trips to Moscow plus an appearance on All-Soviet TV, and around a hundred appearances in the U.S. by authors of the books.
Along with the street demonstrations, TV, and the rest of the useful hoopla, one thing that was new about the era was a huge program of citizen exchange between this country and the Soviet Union. Watching from the Bay Area, we were impressed both by the Esalen Institute program and by a new venture pioneered by Sharon Tennison. (Her deeply revealing book about this under-reported phenomenon is called The Power of Impossible Ideas.)
Ctizen diplomacy provided what lawyers call a "form of action," a way of doing something. U.S. citizens could travel to the other side, and vice versa. With the help of a Gorbachev appointee who could give exit visas, Tennison brought unofficial Soviets to hundreds of cities in the U.S., where they were hosted by "middle Americans" who brought them to backyard barbecues, schools, houses of worship, small businesses, radio stations. In the same way, ordinary Americans, instead of stopping in Western Europe, could go a little further, land in Moscow, and meet ordinary Russians. Politically, this awakening helped to gave the leaders something to move into. As citizen diplomats used to like to say, "when the people lead, the leaders follow."
What changed was the provision of a form of action for people who would otherwise say, "I know, but what can one person do?"
In facing climate change, rather than denying it or acting as if it's a problem for somebody else, later, can we create forms of action for ordinary people,soon? For example, could there be bonds to support a rapid energy transition, the way we had war bonds (also called liberty bonds) to support the military effort in the 1940s? Such bonds could be bought by ordinary people, and would be used to buy and install renewable energy devices, whether solar panels, wind turbines or other modalities. The bonds would be repaid out of the revenue streams from these devices, and out of secondary purchase of the devices themselves. The goal would be to make these devices easily available, starting immediately after the program began, devices that could be owned, for example, by corporations (which could even be non-profit), municipalities, and homeowners. People who choose to buy a bond will be open to the rapid growth of renewable power and to talking with their neighbors.
This is only an illustration of a form of action that would appeal to ordinary people who, despite the propaganda spread by fossil fuel industries trying to repeat the success of the tobacco lobby, know that they and their children will be better off after a rapid energy transition. The point is, we can't wait for the political elite to act, not to the extent that they are bought off by "campaign contributions" and grotesquely large speaking fees, and misled by the denialism of so-called "think tanks."
In the absence of forms of action for ordinary people, we would witness the spectacle of increasingly less cautious scientific warnings, natural disasters (for example, wildfires, floods), absurd self-congratulation by diplomats as after the Paris meetings (COP21), all followed by panic when it's too late to act. The needs for an energy transition is so much bigger than such issues as abortion, or gross economic inequality, or the other matters that arouse such passion. Of what use would be the "right to life" or an acceptable band of inequality in an unlivable world?
It is hard to explain the lack of action on climate change, which I have elsewhere called the "issue from hell." Is the difficulty because a rapid switch to renewable energy would leave us with less energy than we're accustomed to using, and thus inevitably raise the issue of gross economic inequality? Is it because those who respect the scientific consensus are satisfied to laugh at Trump even when they recognize the shortcomings of the other major candidate? Is it because a serious solution involves not only the changing of transportation, but also the raising of methane-emitting animals for food, and the preserving of rain forests? Is it because of the temporal gap between emission of greenhouse gases and the ultimate effects, leading some observers to predict complacency followed by panic? In any case, global warming is low on surveys of public concerns, after such items as the provision of good jobs.
Whatever role will be played by street demonstrations, to get involved in the invisible war, ordinary people need additional forms of action that can't be easily blocked by the cash of fossil fuel industries. A vigorous program of energy bonds is one possibility. Another is local initiatives, such as the new tribe training.

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