On the sidelines of the recent World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, former New Mexico Governor and U.S. Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson was meeting with foreign officials, business leaders and members of the press to advocate for clean energy on a macro scale. Richardson, who was also U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, even got the ear of UN General Secretary Ban-Ki Moon in Abu Dhabi after the General Secretary's press conference kicking off the Year of Sustainable Energy For All.
"Renewable energy is the future," Richardson said at the outset of a 45-minute chat upstairs at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Richardson, along with Nick Aster of Triple Pundit and Brian Merchant of TreeHugger, and talk about renewable energy, energy policy and the environmental movement's strategy given the current political stalemate in Washington.
Encouraging action at the government level
Richardson compared the inactivity and sluggishness in the United States, in terms of clean energy development, to the aggressive moves by the emirate of Abu Dhabi to reinvest and remake its own economy into one centered on clean energy.
"Politically, it is a very smart move and it is going to be considered a master stroke," Richardson said.
Richardson was very clear about government's role in igniting a clean energy revolution in the United States.
"Government should be a catalyst. It can't sit back and not be engaged," he said. "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."
Driving action at the grassroots level
But the biggest difference between what is happening in Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates and what is (not) happening in the United States (of the several), is that the UAE is a monarchy, the US is a democracy -- and democracy is much messier. For that reason, getting governments to adopt pro-renewable energy policies takes a coordinated ground game.
"The message is going to be from the American voters: 'Democrats, Republicans you guys have to start working together.' And that means a jobs program, an energy policy for America," says Gov. Richardson. "The message will be clear: Voters will reward those legislators and policymakers that develop consensus around American's problems. And I think you're seeing an evolution that climate change is becoming more accepted in America. The importance of renewable energies is becoming more accepted."
And the movement needs to be about more than just technology and clean energy, according to Richardson, who calls himself "a traditionalist."
"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."
When I asked Richardson about the strategic direction of the environmental movement should the federal government fail to act with either a comprehensive energy policy, he said, "states should act if the federal government won't"
"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."
In terms of the "how" question, Richardson said that young people need to send strong messages via social media channels.
"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."