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Grim Reading, Crucial Choices on Energy
By Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson,
Authors of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis

You know you're in for a bout of grim reading when the international agency charged with worrying about how we power the planet starts off its fact sheet with a question like this: "Why is our current energy pathway unsustainable?"

That's the message from the International Energy Agency, which issued its World Energy Outlook report earlier this month, the organizations' annual examination of the big picture. That picture itself hasn't changed all that much. The fundamental challenge is still to meet surging worldwide demand for energy, while at the same time coming up with ways to avoid global warming and keep energy relatively affordable.

Basically, the IEA says everything depends on whether or not world leaders get serious about climate change, very soon.

Chances are you've never heard of the IEA which was founded during the 1973-74 oil crisis to "coordinate measures in times of oil supply emergencies." Now IEA serves as an energy analyst, advisor, and think tank for 28 member countries -- the United States and European countries mainly, but also including countries like Japan, South Korea, and Turkey. While the agency has enormous influence among policymakers, it barely registers with the public. And despite the IEA's wonky tone and elite audience, the report has one great strength when it comes to getting the public involved: it focuses on choices and alternatives.

Here what IEA lays out in its 2009 report card:

The world has decisions to make about energy, and of course, so does the United States. Everything we've learned about how people get engaged in policy decisions shows that laying out choices and being honest and clear about the pros and cons is essential -- not to mention being the right thing to do in a democratic society.

In the energy and environment arena, the choices are far from perfect, but then that's pretty typical with major public policy issues. As we've been pointing out lately, this country's choices on energy and the environment are a lot better than our choices on, for example, Afghanistan.

Changing the way we use energy will cost money and force adaptations that many of us would not choose, given our druthers. But we also have to face that sticking with the status quo will also cost money, and we could well have change forced on us by tight energy supplies and growing environmental destruction. Continuing to rely on the world's default setting on energy -- fossil fuels -- is just not going to work.

World leaders, deadlocked on many of the details, are increasingly trying to lower expectations for the big climate conference in Copenhagen next month. But delay is only valuable if it helps break the deadlock later on. The choices are ours to make, and time is running short to make them.

©2009 Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson, authors of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis

Author Bios
Scott Bittle, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is executive editor of PublicAgenda.org, where he has prepared citizen guides on more than twenty major issues including the federal budget deficit, Social Security, and the economy. He is also the website director for Planet Forward, an innovative PBS program designed to bring citizen voices to the energy debate.

Jean Johnson, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is co-founder of PublicAgenda.org, and has written articles and op-eds for USA Today, Education Week, School Board News, Educational Leadership, and the Huffington Post Website.

For additional energy resources and supplemental material, please visit www.whoturnedoutthelights.org