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Jim Murchie – Abraham Lincoln’s Advice on the Energy Transition: True North

For me, the pivotal scene in the movie “Lincoln” features the president (played by Daniel Day Lewis) pleading with the abolitionist congressman from Pennsylvania Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones) to tone down his zealous Radical Republican rhetoric in the upcoming House debate on the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.

Stevens is having none of it. He defends his zealotry because, he insists, that the moral compass of the American people is broken and only his fiery leadership will accomplish the elimination of slavery.

The president offers a warning: “A compass I learned when I was surveying… it’ll point you true North from where you’re standing but it’s got no advice about the swamps, the deserts, and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead heedless of obstacles and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing True North?”

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the current situation the energy system finds itself in today is akin to being sunk in a swamp, especially in Europe. The terrain and the ecosystems of industry and policy cycles and geopolitics are in many respects forces of nature that should be understood, navigated, and harnessed for good, lest they cause harm. Leaders who think they can ignore these pitfalls on their way to True North risk falling into them. Leaders who make perfect the enemy of the good create an adversary that often defeats them.

So the next time you read an editorial, Op-Ed or letter to the editor about the energy transition (which seems to occur daily in the major press outlets), that makes you either cheer or curse, watch this scene: and ask yourself which writers are True North zealots and which will actually help navigate the pitfalls and arrive at an energy system that is cleaner, cheaper and more reliable than the one we currently have.

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