Climate change and terrorism might seem like vastly different challenges, but former CIA Director James Woolsey argues that improving the nation's electricity system and reducing energy consumption would greatly reduce threats posed by both.
Woolsey, who has held government positions in four presidential administrations, is now a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, where he consults on energy and national security issues.
The Indy spoke with him leading up to a pair of early October speaking engagements in Colorado Springs.
Indy: How did you go from being director of the CIA to working on energy issues?
JW: I've been interested in these questions for a long time and have been writing and speaking about them for way over a decade. ... Then after 9/11, Booz Allen came to me and asked me if I'd like to work on homeland security with them. After a couple years, I kept gravitating more and more to the risks from the point of view of homeland security to energy infrastructure, to dependence on oil, et cetera.
Indy: Many people would expect solutions to climate change and terrorism to share little common ground. Where do you find similarities?
JW: They're different in their causes, but they can both substantially affect infrastructure. ... It just happens that a lot of the things you want to do to improve your resilience against malignant problems [climate change] also improve your resilience against malevolent ones [terrorism].
Indy: Which is the greater threat?
JW: The whole point is you want to work on them both. If you work on them both, you build up a larger constituency to do the things that need to be done. If you try and pick one, the people that are worried about the other one may sit on their hands. It's exactly the wrong thing to do, to pick one.
Indy: You argue that improving energy efficiency in buildings could alone significantly cut energy demands, reducing the risks of climate change and terrorism. If this and other strategies make so much sense, why haven't they been done already?
JW: There are various rigidities in the system that derive from history and from the kind of 19th-century nature of the electricity grid and the early 20th-century nature of the automobile. ...
We're used to having cheap energy and kind of wasting it and doing with it what we want. In 48 out of the 50 public utility commissions in the country, they have not yet done what California and now Idaho have done, which is to separate revenues from earnings for utilities. In 48 states, the way to make more money if you're a utility is to produce more electricity, even if it's wasted. In California, the way is to conserve energy through clever innovation.
Indy: You write about catastrophic climate-change scenarios in which feedback loops cause global temperatures to climb many degrees and sea levels to rise by several meters. Is there a danger the problem will sound too depressing for people to take action?
JW: That's part of the problem. That's one of the reasons to spur people to get going and tell them, even if they don't believe something like that could happen, they bloody well ought to believe that bin Laden can figure out how to get a dozen people with rifles and armor-piercing rounds to shoot a bunch of transformers and take a big chunk of the electricity grid down. They shouldn't have any trouble believing that. ...
That's kind of part of the whole thing. If you'd rather worry about terrorism than climate change, worry about terrorism. It'll lead you pretty much the same place.
Indy: News stories still pop up calling into question the science behind climate change. What do you think of arguments that we should wait for the science to be settled before acting?
JW: There are two answers. One is if you don't believe in climate change, do the same thing because it makes your energy system resilient against terrorism. ... But on whether or not the science is settled, the numbers of prominent scientists all over the world who believe that the increase in carbon dioxide will have an effect on climate is way over 90 percent of them, with way over 90 percent confidence. You're never going to get much more scientific consensus than that.
Indy: Why has Europe seen more progress in energy efficiency and alternative energy sources?
JW: We had cheap oil here for a long time. The Texas Railroad Commission was OPEC until 1970, and effectively set the world price of oil. And we've had cheap coal. Once it was cleaned up from local pollution, people weren't until relatively recently worried about global warming, and they weren't until relatively recently worried about terrorist attacks on the electricity grid or interrupting oil flows in the Middle East. Although we had the embargo from the Saudis back in '73 and we had oil supply problems in '79 with the Iranian Revolution, it took 9/11, I think, to get people's minds focused on the danger of relying on that part of the world.
Indy: How far away is the United States from achieving energy independence?
JW: Well, it depends on what you mean by energy independence. Some people mean not importing anything, but I think that's a bad definition.
Independence has to do with control, and avoiding other people being able to control your behavior. ... I think the combination of electricity and liquid fuels will make it possible to do that relatively quickly. You're going to have plug-in hybrids on the road [and] in dealer showrooms from General Motors in 2010, which is two years from now. Toyota is going to have one that doesn't have quite so powerful a battery, but they are talking about the same timeframe, and those are the two biggest automakers in the world.
Also, we're progressing on moving beyond corn-based ethanol and moving into using cellulosic feedstocks for either ethanol, butanol or other types of alternative liquid fuels. If you work on these all together ... things can move a lot more quickly.
Indy: So you see reasons for hope?
JW: Yeah. We need to get going. We need to stop sitting on our hands. It's all up to us. We can either continue to kinda chew our cuds like a bunch of cattle to be led to slaughter, or we can get busy.
Indy: Is there any parallel in U.S. history to the kind of response that will be necessary?
JW: Three years and eight months of World War II. From a standing start after Pearl Harbor, it took six months to retool Detroit and start producing tanks and trucks and aircraft instead of cars. The whole civilian economy switched around. It's not going to be nearly as costly, relatively speaking, to deal with these problems I'm talking about. A lot of things you want to do make money. The point is the dedication. You've got to get organized and get going, and not just sit here twiddling our thumbs.
James Woolsey, on "Solutions to America's Energy Crisis"
Shove Memorial Chapel, 1010 N. Nevada Ave.
Thursday, Oct. 4, 7:30 p.m.
Free; for more information, call 389-6607 or visit coloradocollege.edu.
James Woolsey at the Colorado Springs World Affairs Council
The Broadmoor, 1 Lake Ave.
Friday, Oct. 5, 11:30 a.m.
Registration: $35 (includes lunch), Sept. 28 deadline; visit csworldaffairs.org or call 579-8443.