BONN, Germany-When first lady Michelle Obama started an organic garden at the White House, she sparked a national discussion on food, obesity, health and sustainability. But the green action on the White House lawn hasn't made it to the White House roof, unfortunately.
Back in 1979, President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the West Wing as part of a new solar strategy. "In the year 2000," Carter said, "the solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here, supplying cheap, efficient energy. A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people."
Sadly, after President Ronald Reagan came into office, he had the panels removed, and some of them did end up in museums. Environmental activist Bill McKibben, founder of the group 350.org, told me, "You know where one of these other panels is? It's in the private museum of the Chinese entrepreneur who's built the world's largest solar thermal company on earth, Himin Solar. They've installed 60 million arrays like this across China."
In 1990, the White House panels were retrieved from government storage and put back into use by Unity College in Maine. To make the case for solar, McKibben joined with a group of Unity College students and drove one of the panels from their campus to the White House, asking that it be put back on the roof. The White House declined the offer.
President Barack Obama campaigned on the pledge that he would create millions of new green jobs. He hired Van Jones as his White House green jobs czar-only to fire him shortly after Jones became the target of what he called a "vicious smear campaign," which was promulgated by Fox News Channel. Now Obama faces a massive unemployment problem, jeopardizing not only the livelihoods of tens of millions, but the political prospects for the Democrats.
Here in Bonn, the answer couldn't be clearer: Use stimulus money and policy to jump-start a green job sector, to help create, for example, solar panel manufacturing, installation and servicing.
Germany, one of the most advanced economies in the world, did just that.
Now, as reported in the Financial Times, German photovoltaic cell installations last year amount to more than one-half of those in the world.
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I'm here covering the 30th anniversary of the Right Livelihood Awards, an amazing gathering of scores of activists and thinkers from around the world. Among them is Hermann Scheer, a member of the German Parliament.
When he received his Right Livelihood Award, he said: "Solar energy is the energy of the people. To use this energy does not require big investments of only a few big corporations. It requires billions of investments by billions of people. They have the opportunity to switch from being a part of the problem to becoming a part of the global solution."
And Germany is making this happen. Small-scale residential and commercial solar power installations are not only providing jobs, increased efficiency and cost savings-they actually are allowing the owners of the systems to sell excess power back to the power grid, running their meters in reverse, when conditions allow.
Here, too, are representatives of the Bangladeshi organization Grameen Shakti, which makes loans and offers technical assistance to allow poor, rural people to install solar power in their homes, often granting access to electricity for the first time in their family's history. They have helped install more than 110,000 systems, often with a woman hired to maintain the system-creating jobs, empowering women and raising the standard of living.
Also in Bonn is the headquarters of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the sponsor of the failed Copenhagen climate talks last year. U.N. member countries and other stakeholders will meet again in December in Cancun, Mexico, with expectations for substantial progress declining almost daily.
The Obamas' organic garden shows that when the most powerful, public couple takes a stand, people pay attention. Instead of just saying no, President Obama could make an important statement in restoring the White House solar panels to the roof: After the BP Gulf oil disaster, after the reckless invasion and profoundly costly occupation of Iraq (which many believe was based on our need for oil), after the massive, ongoing loss of jobs, we are changing. We will power a vital movement away from fossil fuels, to sustainable energy, to green jobs.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.