Obama’s Chance for a Fresh Start on a Climate-Smart Energy Quest

Source: By ANDREW C. REVKIN, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2013

It was heartening to see President Obama include an ample reference to the importance of climate-smart energy policies in his short inaugural address today. The speech is presumably a sketch of what’s to come in the State of the Union message and policy initiatives this year.

In his speech, Obama framed the need to address climate change and non-polluting energy technologies as both as a legacy issue and a real-world priority. Importantly, he also cautioned that this will be a long journey. Here’s the excerpt:

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.

We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries. We must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

It’s time for the president to move from pledges on such initiatives to action. Back in 2010, without setting a timeline, John P. Holdren, the president’s science adviser, said a “major speech” on climate change was forthcoming from the president. Hopefully, this is the year, not only for a sustained rhetorical focus, but a suite of initiatives (some of which I touched on a few days ago).

The delays so far, and hints of a sustained, patient approach going forward, are surely frustrating for those seeking urgent action to accept. But, as I wrote recently, momentous challenges like building an energy menu that works for the long haul require an odd mix of urgency (perhaps intensity is a better word) and patience.

The only plausible approach is a stepwise policy, building from smart near-term steps that can be sold to many constituencies for many reasons (energy efficiency, boosting resilience to climate hazards in vulnerable places) toward the tougher ones. That was the recommendation in 2006 from the late Stephen H. Schneider, the Stanford University climate scientist, and I think it’s still the right approach.

There’s plenty to parse in today’s speech, including the president’s unfortunate mashup of the clarity of basic greenhouse science (which is where the “overwhelming judgment” of scientific assessments lies) and the much tougher challenge of discerning what factors have caused recent large losses from fires, drought and storms.

In conflating robust and uncertain areas of science even as he tries to isolate those who would “deny” the basics, Obama may alienate Americans who agree climate change poses risks, and love smart energy steps, but challenge (legitimately) some recent conclusions about disaster losses and the like.*

Also, his politically expedient framing of the American energy imperative as a competition for jobs and wealth with other countries (read China) glosses over the reality that a substantial mix of international competition and collaboration will be required for the world to achieve significant breakthroughs in non-polluting energy technologies. A great overview is provided in a 2010 Council on Foreign Relations report, “Energy Innovation Driving Technology Competition and Cooperation Among the United States, China, India, and Brazil.

But this speech is just the start, and a sketch. There’s time for Obama and his administration to refine their approach and goals. (There’s also time for the administration to reconsider an approach taken on climate discussions last week, when the White House, according to Reuters, asked that a session on global warming with a group of mayors not be public.)

A great starting place for administration officials, and anyone else considering ways to shape and frame an American push on energy action, from the kitchen wall socket to the White House, is a compelling and non-ideological 2003 lecture by Richard Smalley, the chemistry Nobelist who devoted the final years of his life, even while battling leukemia, to pressing the case for action on humanity’s great energy challenge, and opportunity. Please watch the YouTube collection at the preceding link (including the question period).