State

We're ceding new industry to Chinese

China is having a good week in America. Yes it is. I'd even suggest that there is some high-fiving going on in Beijing.

I mean, wouldn't you if you saw America's Democratic and Republican leaders conspiring to ensure that it cedes the next great global industry -- energy technology -- to China?

But, before I get to that, here's a little news item to chew on: Applied Materials, a U.S. Silicon Valley company that makes the machines that make sophisticated solar panels, opened the world's largest commercial solar research and development center in Xian, China, in October.

It initially sought applicants for 260 scientist and technologist jobs. Howard Clabo, a company spokesman, told me that the Xian center received 26,000 Chinese applications and hired 330 people -- 31 percent with master's or Ph.D. degrees.

"Roughly 50 percent of the solar panels in the world were made in China last year," explained Clabo. "We need to be where the customers are."

And what kind of week is America having? After months of heroic negotiations, Sens. John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman had forged a bipartisan climate/energy/jobs bill that, while far from perfect, would have, for the first time, put a long-term fixed price on carbon -- precisely the kind of price signal U.S. industry and consumers need to start really shifting the economy to clean-power innovations.

The bill was supposed to be unveiled on Monday, but it was suddenly postponed because of Graham's justified fury that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid had decided to push immigration reform first -- even though no such bill is ready -- in a bid to attract Latino voters to revive his re-election campaign in Nevada.

After all the work that has gone into knitting together this bipartisan bill, which has the support of key industry players, it would be insane to let this effort fail. Fortunately, on Tuesday, Reid was hinting about a compromise. But, ultimately, the issue isn't just about introducing a bill. It's about getting the bill passed.

And there we are going to need the president's sustained leadership.

President Barack Obama has done a superb job in securing stimulus money for green technology and in using his regulatory powers to compel the auto industry to improve mileage standards to a whole new level. But he has always been rather coy when it comes to when and how much he will personally push an energy/climate bill that would fix a price on carbon-emitting fuels. Without that price signal, you will never get sustained consumer demand for, or sustained private investment in, clean-power technologies. All you will get are hobbies.

The president clearly wants this bill to pass, but his advisers are worried that because the bill will likely result in higher electricity or gasoline charges, Republicans will run around screaming "carbon tax" and hurt Democrats in the midterm elections.

I appreciate the president's dilemma.

But I don't think hanging back and letting the Senate take the lead is the right answer.

This is a big leadership moment. He needs to confront it head on, because I think doing the right and hard thing here will actually be good politics.

Much of our politics today is designed to make people stupid, confused and afraid of change. The GOP has been particularly egregious on energy and climate.

I believe if you talk straight to the American people on energy and climate, they will give you the right answers, and, ultimately, the support needed to trump the vested interests and lobbyists who have kept us addicted to oil.

Obama has all the right instincts on this issue. He just needs to trust them. If he brings his A-game to energy legislation, Americans will follow -- and then maybe we can have a good century.

THE NEW YORK TIMES

  Comments