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Schwarzenegger: Time to change the energy debate

Former California governor says green-tech advocates should focus on health, economic, national-security benefits of clean energy, rather than on climate change.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.--Green-technology proponents need a better way to make their case, according to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, in a speech today, arguably raised his profile as a leading advocate himself.

The former California governor and movie star gave a keynote talk at the ARPA-E Summit here, alternating between funny one-liners and serious discussion on the importance of clean-energy technologies for the country's future prosperity.

Martin LaMonica/CNET

California offers a model for tech companies that can help vitalize the economy and reduce greenhouse gases, while helping the country reduce its imports of oil, he argued. Schwarzenegger signed a global-warming law that mandates reductions in greenhouse gases, and the state has a renewable-energy mandate that has resulted in almost 20 percent of electricity coming from renewable sources.

But Schwarzenegger lamented the national discussion and political discourse on clean energy, saying too much of it is stuck in the debate over the science of global warming.

Instead, people should focus on immediate benefits from investing in green technologies, including improved health, economic growth, consumer savings from efficiency, and reduced dependence on foreign oil. He said on health, there are about 100,000 premature deaths a year that can be linked to oil use.

"Think about what it means that in the Central Valley of California, one in six children has to walk around with an inhaler. I know we can change the debate and win the debate," he said. "We can't talk about global warming, because people can't relate to that."

In California, he found that policymakers had to fight efforts by the energy "status quo" to repeal environmental regulations. In the fall election, there was a ballot question to scale back environmental legislation, an effort Schwarzenegger said was financed by Ohio coal and Texas oil companies.

He said the recent instability in the Middle East has sent the prices of oil gyrating, demonstrating the geopolitical impact of our energy policies. "Why should a dried-up little country (like Libya) led by a dictator play havoc with America's economic security?" he asked.

Economically, California has benefited from promoting a green economy, with job growth in green technologies higher than in other areas. One company, Solazyme, is creating algae fuel that reduces greenhouse gases significantly. It's being tested by the Navy, not "some weirdo environmentalists," he said.

Instead of crafting "forward-looking policies" around energy, politicians are debating the science of global warming. "There is a disconnect between what is happening and what is being debated," he said.