A Hot Night In St. Petersburg

It was 87 degrees at 11 PM, with humidity that made me stagger as I left the air-conditioned Palladium Theater to walk the five blocks back to my hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida.  I had just finished doing a filmed interview and talking to members of the audience after having been the last speaker at a public forum on the BP oil spill disaster organized by NRDC and the Florida Business Network for a Clean Energy Economy.

Susan Glickman, one of the event’s organizers, had been hoping for a crowd of 500.  Over 900 people showed up and packed the 850-seat Palladium.  There were people sitting on the floor, and people out on the sidewalk in the hot evening, unable to get in. 

People in St. Petersburg were scared.  Scared, and feeling helpless about the approaching oil from the BP blowout.  News had just broken that the Macondo well was now estimated to be belching 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil per day, in contrast to BP’s laughable estimate of 5,000 barrels.  Even using the 35,000 barrel estimate, we have now seen the equivalent of several Exxon Valdez supertanker accidents in the Gulf in under two months, with no end in sight.  The people who came to the public forum wanted to understand what had happened, and what would happen.

My panel, the last of the evening, was grandly entitled “Solutions” and, by a fluke of scheduling, followed a live, big screen telecast of President Obama’s Oval Office talk about the situation in the Gulf.  The audience reacted with obvious approval to the President’s tough words about BP.  And their temperature heated up substantially when he began to talk about ending our addiction to oil and transitioning to a clean energy economy – ending with a wave of applause and roars of approval that rocked the hall. 

The 900 people in that hall got it.  A clean energy economy isn’t some wonkish, impractical notion to them.  They have seen the cost of our increasingly dangerous hunt for more oil, and they don’t want to pay it. 

I closed the loop during my presentation by talking about how a clean energy economy could and should bring jobs – good-paying jobs – to Florida, the “Sunshine State.”  The audience went nuts.  Unemployment is over 12 percent in Florida.  These folks want jobs and they want clean energy. 

This is doable – now.  Everyone on my “Solutions” panel told the audience that they need to tell this to their elected representatives, and don’t let up.  I hope that Florida’s Congressional delegation gets the message that was crystal clear in the Palladium Theater – the same message that President Obama delivered – that the time to move strongly, with no turning back, down the road to a renewable energy future, is now.  As the President said, we can’t afford not to.