Apr 042011
Authors: Jim Sojourner

Editor’s note: The original version said the Intelligence Squared debate took place on March 5. It took place on March 8. The Collegian regrets this error.

You shouldn’t bring a knife to a gunfight, and you shouldn’t bring Bill Ritter to an Oxford-style debate. Not, at least, any debate you want to win.

Last month in a debate sponsored by Intelligence Squared, the director of CSU’s Center for the New Energy Economy proved once again why CSU should want someone better running the new center.

I was put onto the debate by Fort Collins mayoral candidate and local clean energy guru, Eric Sutherland, who directed me to Vincent Carrol’s spot on Saturday Denver Post column that rightly dubs Ritter and his partner’s March 8 debate performance a “drubbing.”

After listening to and reading the debate myself, I have to agree –– which is particularly disheartening since the debate proposition, “Clean energy can drive America’s economic recovery,” should have set up a home run for the man who’s supposed clean energy chops landed him a cushy $300,000 job at our university. Instead, in the parlance of our season, the former governor struck out.

But don’t take my word for it.

Before the debate took place, the audience at New York University voted on the above proposition. Forty-six percent of the audience supported it, 21 percent were opposed and 33 percent were undecided. Afterward, those in favor dropped to 43 percent, those opposed increased to 47 percent and 10 percent remained undecided.

A drubbing, indeed. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Anyone familiar with debate would be hard-pressed to disagree that Ritter and his partner Kassia Yanosek, a member of the steering committee of the U.S. Partnership for Renewable Energy Finance, seemed woefully underprepared.

Their opponents, Robert Bryce, author of “Power Hungry,” and Steven Hayward, contributor to the American Enterprise Institute, pitched facts at will. Ritter wallowed in the same trite political talking points he learned to recite while governor.

When Bryce and Hayward threw out numbers, Ritter and Yanosek responded with anecdotes. When Bryce and Hayward rolled off statistics, Ritter and Yanosek spit out slogans.

At times, as Carrol points out, Ritter did even worse, swerving into fantasyland when he insisted that the U.S. could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent –– down to 1 billion tons of CO2 –– by 2050 with the right mix of clean energy.

At the risk of trotting over too much ground Carrol already plowed, the transcript of the exchange goes like this:

Hayward: “Can you give me an emissions inventory for 2050, of specific sources that will add up to more than a billion tons?”

Ritter: “Well, no, I’m not able to sitting right here, but what I’m telling you is that it’s absolutely achievable … ”

Hayward: “If it’s absolutely achievable, you ought to be able to tell us how.”

As the director of the touted Center for the New Energy Economy, yes he should.

But per Carrol, Ritter’s own Climate Action Plan of 2007 admits that reaching that goal will require technology they “hope and expect” will appear.

Speaking of facts, to cut emissions by 80 percent, the U.S. would have to lower its emissions to the level of emissions currently produced by North Korea, Syria or Cuba, Bryce argues. And the last time the U.S. emissions were that low, Hayward says, was more than 100 years ago when only 92 million people lived in the country.

As an advocate for cross-industry clean energy policies that set America up for future success, I found the whole affair worrisome. Ritter showed himself to be toothless and disconnected from reality, and he shamed the institution I’m proud to attend.

I applaud CSU for trying to take a leadership role in reshaping America’s energy landscape. As a leading research institution, our university is a perfect place to examine and advocate for policies that create jobs, look out for America’s energy security and protect our environment’s future.

But to do so, the Center for the New Energy Economy needs a pragmatist armed with facts, not political slogans, to lead the charge. It will need a real thinker, not a real politician.

Heck, someone like Bryce or Hayward would do.

In a letter to the editor on this page two weeks ago, Ritter said his center is “committed to promoting clean energy, and it has the capability to influence public policy in a variety of ways at the federal, state and local levels.”

Commit all you want, but if Ritter isn’t even capable of influencing the minds of a New York audience, I doubt he’ll have much success anywhere else.

Managing Editor Jim Sojourner is a senior journalism major. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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