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Udall: A Letter to My Grandchildren, Pt 3

Global warming, world leadership, and peace

December 31, 2010 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Chesapeake Climate Action Network
  Stewart Udall says that an American-led battle against global warming offers all sorts of opportunities.

Editor’s Note: This is Part Three of a letter written by Stewart Udall to his grandchildren about global warming. In Part One, Mr. Udall described how Americans became enamored with mobility and an “unlimited” energy supply. In Part Two, he looked at the lessons of The Great Depression and World War II. Mr. Udall concludes by describing how the spirit that America brought to winning World War II can win the fight against climate change.

America conducted its role in WWII in a way that expressed the values of the Frugal Generation. There had been war profiteering during World War I, and leaders decided at the outset of World War II that wages and prices would be controlled and war burdens would be shared equally. Millions of soldiers had their meager paychecks sent home so their parents could buy war bonds. War plant employees also invested in bonds and worked overtime for modest pay.

Despite the tragedies of the war, what etched the overall experience in memory was the spirit that guided individual decisions and behavior. It was manifest in a creed of sharing and comradeship captured in the evocative postwar film, The Best Years of Our Lives. Those were memorable years for all of us because we dedicated our lives to a common purpose that excluded thoughts of personal gain or personal safety.

That way of thinking was a powerful legacy of the Great Depression. Fortunately for the nation, it was so pervasive that it carried over into the postwar period and dominated our social, political, and economic life.

It was on display in the GI Bill of Rights, which gave returning soldiers a chance to get a good education. Its concept of sharing could be seen in the rapid growth of a middle class, and in the opportunities afforded veterans to establish small businesses.

In addition, a Depression-born abhorrence of debt resulted in the elimination of a vast war debt. My generation believed in balanced national budgets. As a consequence, leaders of both political parties voted for tax rates that, in the next 25 years, substantially wiped out the debt imposed by the war. To those who fought that war, it was unthinkable to put even part of the repayment burden on our children.

Bipartisan Wisdom
I served as a congressman for six years under President Eisenhower, and during the 1960s in the cabinets of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. A bond of mutual respect muted most partisan quarrels; when paramount Cold War Issues arose, every president garnered solid support.

House Speak Sam Rayburn encapsulated the attitude of the returning soldiers with the statement, “We elect one president at a time, and whoever he happens to be, I want him to be a successful president.”

As postwar history evolved, that wisdom prevailed in Congress and the country. A succession of presidents of both political parties won unanimous support for the Marshal Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Eisenhower’s policies and face to face dialogue with Chairman Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union led to the avoidance of nuclear war.

I regard the period from 1945 to 1981 as a turbulent time, but also a time when mutual respect allowed policymaking to be governed by compromise and restraint.

Now, as we begin to come to grips with the enormous, overarching energy-environmental problem, we need to heed the counsel of President Eisenhower, a military man who became a peace president. Ike excelled at ending wars other countries started. For example, as president he refused to use military force to rescue the French in Vietnam.

Eisenhower, in his much-admired farewell message, warned Americans to be wary of the growing military-industrial complex that would subsequently saddle the American people with the extravagant huge costs for an imperial presence in the world. Today our nation is spending more on military expenses than all the world’s other countries combined! It is instructive to listen to Ike’s advice about the use—and abuse—of military power.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rock fired,” the outgoing president warned in his farewell message of January, 1961, “signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, and the hopes of its children.”

Now Is the Time
It is now time to redirect that sweat, genius, and hope in a brand-new direction. After a decade of dillydallying, it is clear that the world is waiting for the United States to step forward, as it did so often in the postwar period, and organize a bold agenda of technological cooperation that reverses global warming. A comprehensive action plan is needed that will inspire your generation to develop inventions that provide universal benefits for humanity.

Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, presents a powerful diagnosis of the ever-growing impacts of global warming. But the remedies he prescribes are timid and inadequate. Moreover, the ticking of our planet’s clock is getting louder, so all-embracing action is needed.

Using new tools, scientists, engineers, and designers can develop super-efficient ways to use existing energy and invent permanent energy supplies to sustain life on earth. This can be accomplished if the world’s richest countries, with the U.S. in the vanguard, provide bold leadership.

The project I envision is not just a U.S. project. The space program is not an appropriate model; the organization must have an unprecedented scope and scale and have funding that will make it the most ambitious, visionary research and development project in human history.

Big Trouble, Big Opportunities
A time of big troubles can also be a time of big opportunities. Imagine that the 20 most prosperous nations—whose belching energy industries have put three-fourths of all manmade carbon emissions into the atmosphere—joined together and created a scientific consortium to both deal with the urgent problems posed by the end of cheap oil and the warming of the earth, and develop renewable sources of energy for the world at large.

If these 20 nations pooled their financial resources on an equitable basis, they could create an economic powerhouse that could change the course of history. I ask you to assume, too, that these countries agreed that each member nation would initially contribute to the annual budget in proportion to the heat-trapping carbon it generated in the previous year. Such a sharing would insure a fast beginning for the overall program.

What would it cost, you may wonder, if a future U.S. president decided to lead a worldwide campaign to tackle these issues? I think it is something comparable to the amount we are spending each week to “pacify” Iraq.

In the first phase, stabilizing the carbon in the atmosphere would have the highest priority, but research teams would also focus on energy efficiency and new technologies to harness various forms of renewable energy. With such a universal agenda, the whole world would watch expectantly as the consortium announced new concepts generated by its experts. Simultaneously, developing countries could, for example, encourage efforts to explore the potential of “wind farms” on the outer continental shelves of countries to augment supplies of electricity.

Such an exciting agenda would have many facets. Architects, builders, and designers are already telling us that the build environment is a sector where huge amounts of electricity can be saved. They are convinced that a design revolution involving reconfiguring and renovating residences, offices, and factories can drastically reduce heating and cooling costs. Indeed, they believe the build environment can be made “carbon neutral” and reduce future demand for electric power by perhaps as much as 40 percent.

It is easy to envision that war news would fade from the front pages if the U.S., the European Union, and China led efforts to create a history-making energy consortium. China is a crucial partner. It not only has the world’s fastest-growing economy, but for two decades its universities have been graduating more scientists and engineers than any other country. It is also the site of the most polluted cities in the world, and should welcome guidance from our country, which has long been the world’s pioneer in pollution control.

If such leadership emerges, I predict that human beings everywhere will view their lives through a new lens.

Why am I so optimistic about your future? Because the world has had its fill of fear and is hungry for hope. Because an educational revolution has been underway for the past two decades in several countries and has enhanced the capacity of nations to deal with unprecedented challenges. As documented by Thomas L. Friedman in his book, The World Is Flat, the doubling and prospective tripling of the number of highly trained, selfless scientists and engineers has produced a pool of brainpower and moral power that is ready to create the building blocks of a new and better world.

The challenges that your generation faces will test your ingenuity and generosity. Your eyes will scan horizons that human beings have never contemplated.

Whether you are a person of faith who believes the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, whether you are an individual who has had mystical experiences that link you to the network of eternity, or whether you are a fervent conservationist who wants to leave a legacy for your progeny, the earth needs your devotion and tender care.

Go well, do well, my children! Support all endeavors that promise a better life for the inhabitants of our plant. Cherish sunsets, wild creations, and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth!

As Secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Stewart Udall successfully pushed for the Clean Air, Water Quality, and Clean Water Restoration Acts and Amendments, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, and other groundbreaking green laws, and helped establish dozens of new national parks, wilderness areas, and shorelines.

You can read Part One of Mr. Udall’s letter here. Part Two is here. Read Institute founder Keith Schneider’s 1998 essay about Mr. Udall here.

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