Energy & Environment

Are we sovereign?

Scotland’s historic vote posed a deceptively simple question: Should Scotland be an independent nation? The question is deceptive because under it lays one of the defining issues of our time. In an age of globalization, do we navigate alone or together?

The United States confronts a similarly defining challenge: Can we confront climate change? Scotland’s vote asked whether its people chose to be sovereign. So does ours. Climate change asks whether we will make wholesale changes to the ways we produce and consume energy — or live with the consequences of a “no” vote. This is our referendum. Are we sovereign over our energy systems and the future they will bring us?

{mosads}In a philosophical sense, of course, the answer is “yes.” The energy systems that we have now are a product of the choices of the American people over the past 228 years. The energy systems that we have in 100 years will be the products of our choices between now and then. People have made our energy systems, and people can remake them. Engineers can design alternative energy technologies. Energy companies can find new business models. Governments can rethink energy policies.

In a constitutional sense, the answer is also yes. The United States is a democracy, and our Constitution grants sovereignty to the people and to our representative institutions. We can and have exercised that sovereign authority over energy a thousand times in our history. Most notably, in the early 20th century, we granted utilities monopoly power to supply electricity — a decision that has benefited our nation enormously, but that is fraying at the edges as new distributed energy technologies confront utilities with what Kris Mayes, former chairwoman of the Arizona Corporation Commission calls a wave of “cascading, natural deregulation.”

In a market society, the answer is also yes. Some, like Naomi Klein, have tried to pitch climate change as a battle against capitalism. This is wrong, for two reasons. First, our energy systems largely do not operate as markets. Utilities are heavily regulated monopolies. In the fuel sector, most of the world’s oil companies are state-owned enterprises. Even those that aren’t have historically been protected national assets, capable of calling on governments and even militaries to protect their operations. Democratic publics and authoritarian regimes alike have agreed that energy is too important to be left to the market.

Second, in markets, even the circumscribed ones that operate in the energy sector, consumers are sovereign. We buy the energy — and we can choose to buy differently. For the past half-century, we have tacitly accepted that the best choice was to purchase electricity from coal-fired power plants and gasoline to power our automobiles. Today, we have new choices. Tomorrow, we will have even more. And the evidence is in. If people can afford their new choices, they will make them. They already are. Silicon Valley has proven that it can disrupt whole industries. Its success thus far in energy has been modest, but I wouldn’t bet that today’s energy companies are nimble enough to compete for very long.

The real fight is not against capitalism, but ourselves. Just as we have been fooled into thinking that our energy systems are a product of capitalism, so we have been fooled by energy engineers and policy advocates into thinking that our energy systems are little more than a bunch of technologies. They are not. Energy permeates our societies. We don’t just use energy; we inhabit our energy systems. They shape our politics, our social structures, our families, our daily habits. To change our energy systems is to change our selves, to change the way we imagine the world and our own identities, to radically reconfigure the distribution of wealth and power in society.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) wants to conquer Iraq and Saudi Arabia — not Syria. The latter has no oil. But it’s a fool’s mission. The Persian Gulf faces a future not of prosperity, but deep poverty, unless they can use this moment in time to transform today’s oil wealth into diversified economies that work on solar energy. Oil will be gone by the end of the 21st century. They see it and acknowledge it. It is their sovereignty challenge.

Ours is to master ourselves. The fossil fuel oligarchs are nothing without our money. They know it. My state, Arizona, has no fossil energy resources. We export $12 billion every year to other parts of the world to pay for coal and oil. We self impose an annual 5 percent tax on the state’s economy by buying energy from other people. We, the people of Arizona know it. We have an alternative. We have the best sun in the world. We know that. But, in a very pragmatic sense, do we have the ability, the power or the will to change how we produce and consume energy? Are we sovereign over our energy systems? Are we sovereign over ourselves? Yes.

Scotland’s vote was decisive to navigate the shoals of globalization together with their fellow citizens of the United Kingdom. England can, of course, still blow it. Working together will take effort.

Will we get the chance to have a national referendum on climate change in the United States? It might seem not, but the answer is yes. This November, we will vote on climate change. And next. And 2016. Every vote we take; every purchase we make; every time we plug a new technology in. Every time we make a choice, whatever it’s about, it has ramifications for how tomorrow’s energy systems will evolve. We are not powerless. We are sovereign over energy. We will choose. But will we choose to work together to create a low-carbon, just energy future? We are waiting for ourselves to decide, and other countries are waiting, too.

What choice will we make?

Miller is associate director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO) and associate professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University.

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