The Tradeoffs of Going Green

Jane and Michael Hoffman are not exactly your average, everyday couple. Jane was New York City consumer affairs commissioner in the Giuliani administration and Michael is a wealthy investor whose holdings, at one point, included a coal-fired power plant. One day, Jane served her husband, Michael, his favorite, tuna fish, for lunch. "The tuna looked too fresh at the market to pass up," she said. "Too bad we can't have it more than once a week. I guess we have you to thank for that."

Jane was making a point about how mercury emissions from coal settle in the water, where they poison the fish. Michael got the point. He sold the power plant and now runs the world's largest investment fund in renewable energy.

It's not as though you, too, can make the world a greener place quite in the way the Hoffmans do. But as they argue in their new book, "Green: Your Place in the New Energy Revolution," there are any number of fairly simple things that individuals can do that actually do make a difference. Like turning off your computer at night and using more efficient light bulbs, or using paper bags instead of plastic. All of that is important. But the larger issue raised by their book (praised truthfully, if a little back-handedly, by Publisher's Weekly as "surprisingly entertaining") is whether there is the public will to get America off polluting fossil fuels and onto renewable energy.

As a Wall Street type, Michael Hoffman has faith in the power of the marketplace. The Hoffmans' book estimates that about 85 percent of the switch over to a green economy can come from private funds. That sounds great, but it still requires the federal government, i.e., the taxpayers, to contribute many hundreds of billions, and therein lies the rub.

Congress, dominated by lobbyists, is fine at providing subsidies for oil companies and politically powerful corn growers. But there is only a weak lobby for renewables like wind power and solar. And there is almost no political support for a carbon tax to pay for the transition to a cleaner future. That's not going to change any time soon. It will require a great—I would say stupendous—act of political leadership to create the right circumstances for a political deal.

Here's the political reality that most fans of going green don't want to embrace and the Hoffmans don't directly confront: Congress will require a massive horse trade. The only way to get votes for subsidizing renewable energy on the large scale we need is to let the old fossil-fuel boys have their way on drilling. That means drilling in Alaska, on public lands and off the coasts of California and Florida and anywhere else oil is found. If you take drilling off the table, the votes for a mega-deal on energy won't be there. Barack Obama likes to talk about "new politics," getting away from the special interests, and John McCain has taken a virtuous delight in trying to stop favored industries from acquiring and protecting tax breaks. Sounds good, but what will be required is a deal-maker on the scale of Lyndon Johnson, who can twist arms in the back room and force the pols to give a little to get a little. (To his credit, Obama seems to recognize that deal-making is required: Last week he dropped his opposition to offshore drilling if it was made part of a grander bargain to get an energy bill through Congress.)

There is a real question whether democracies are capable of making short-term sacrifices for long-term rewards (outside of wartime). The Hoffmans did a little bargaining over the tuna fish. The American political system is going to have to accept distasteful compromises to move forward toward a truly green future.