Yale Environment 360: A Green Agenda for Obama’s First 100 Days

At Yale Environment 360, a group of environmental activists, scientists and thinkers — Paul Hawken, Bill McKibben, Rajendra Pachauri, Van Jones, Fred Krupp, and Joseph Romm– were asked to offer President-elect Obama advice on the environmental and energy priorities he should set for the first 100 days of his administration. Here’s what I suggested:

Obama’s top priority should be to stop the country from building any more traditional coal plants. The Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to do that today.

If we don’t stop building new dirty coal plants, we can’t meet the greenhouse gas targets needed to avoid catastrophic warming — targets Obama himself has embraced, including a 17 percent cut in total U.S. emissions by 2020, and then a further 80 percent cut by 2050. If developed countries can’t show that sustainable growth is possible without coal, then developing countries will never shift away from it. Ultimately, coal with carbon capture and storage may prove practical and affordable, but that technology is at least a decade or two away (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“).

Fortunately, with energy efficiency, wind power, solar photovoltaics, and concentrated solar thermal, plus other renewables, the country has more than enough cost-effective technologies to not only replace new coal, but to start shutting down existing plants (see “Is 450 ppm possible? Part 5: Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?“). Obama should use the economic stimulus package and a major 2009 Energy Bill to launch a massive effort to vastly improve energy efficiency, create clean electricity, and develop smart grid technology. The next priority is aggressively jumpstarting the transition to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Electricity is the only alternative fuel that can provide an abundant domestic, low-carbon, alternative fuel with a per-mile fueling cost that is considerably cheaper than gasoline or diesel (see “An introduction to the core climate solutions“).

The third priority is a climate bill that sets a price on carbon. Such a price is crucial for stimulating the ingenuity of the marketplace. But such a bill won’t deal with existing coal plants or the transportation sector fast enough to meet urgent near-term emissions targets. Only smart regulations can do that, which is why they are a higher priority.

17 Responses to Yale Environment 360: A Green Agenda for Obama’s First 100 Days

  1. MikeB says:


    One of the criteria for the economic stimulus is that it needs to be spent very quickly in order to help the economy. I keep hearing the phrase ‘shovel-ready’ for target projects, things that could start hiring people and spending money within days of approval.

    So, suppose you had some phenomenally huge amount of money devoted entirely to green energy construction, like $50 Billion, but you had to spend every penny of that in just 6-9 months. Could we actually consume that money fast enough with our best available choices, like upgraded power grids and solar-thermal (baseload) plants? It seems that just picking a design and a location for such projects would take at least 6 months, assuming a very streamlined process, so it would be nearly impossible to even start construction that fast.

    How else would you spend massive amounts of money quickly? I really want to see every building over 20 years old get new efficient windows and upgraded attic insulation, that would rapidly produce jobs for huge numbers of people in the construction realm. But again, how much money could we reasonably spend on such a task? Could we spend $50 Billion in just a year on this?

  2. MikeB says:

    To add to my thoughts above: plug-in vehicles are great, but can we actually spend any stimulus money on them?

    I’m watching the development of at least a dozen electric and plug-in vehicles, everything from small Chinese scooters to 3-wheel commuters to full size sedans. The Chinese scooters are about the only thing on the road today (and I own one), just about everything else goes into production in 2010 or later. So even if there was a 90% tax credit on the purchase price of every plug-in or electric vehicle, there would be no actual economic stimulus until 2010 or later. How do you shovel $50 Billion dollars into an industry really quickly?

    Obama has a great opportunity to use targeted spending as part of a massive economic stimulus package, and I know he wants to target ‘green’ spending. But I don’t think much of your plan above meets that goal.

    In fact, halting production of coal plants is great for the environment, but crappy for the economy. You need to pair the halting of coal plants with an alternative that uses at least as many construction workers, and can break ground immediately.

  3. kookiecookie says:

    Can’t spend $50 billion in 6-9 months??? Why not??? Isn’t that what was done in New Orleans? Congress was shoveling money out the door faster than they could generate (tax) it.
    And with that kind of investment, maybe some scientist would come up with a clean coal solution to make the greenies happy. Like filtering out the mercury.

  4. MikeB says:

    No, after Katrina, the government allocated tens of billions of dollars for the reconstruction in New Orleans, but most of that money was never actually spent.

    The trick with economic stimulus money is actually getting it into the hands of working people, people who will then spend it on consumer goods (among other things). It’s easy to create a plan to spend billions over the next 5-10 years, but hard to spend it intelligently over a short period of time. That’s probably why the last economic stimulus was so ineffective, just handing people a check didn’t really do anything for the economy.

    The best plan is to create jobs where people feel that they have a secure income for the next few years. But creating jobs is a slow process, creating a new industry is even slower. I like building renovation because it’s a good way to create jobs that rewards skill but allows novices to enter the field. But I really don’t know if we can ramp that up fast enough.

  5. David B. Benson says:

    By all means tax carbon. Both Schuiling and my modification of his plan require about $15 per tonne of CO2 removed. Here are poster session slides about his:

    As a complete aside, yesterday between 6 and 7 pm, Avista (the local power utility) reached a peak load of 1,821 megawatts of electricity, breaking the record of 1,796 megawatts set in February 1996, when temperatures fell to minus 22 degrees. Not sure just where it was so cols, but I suppose Spokane. Yesterday’s temperatures there were in the twenties, with a possible 24 hour snow fall record being set.

  6. Mark Shapiro says:

    Joe –

    Yes. You’ve been thinking and writing about solutions a lot, and it shows.

    But my number one piece of advice to PEBO would be on the rhetoric:

    EVERY time you talk about climate change, say that solving climate change will create jobs, strengthen the economy, and strengthen our national security. Say it at the beginning, say it in the middle, and say it in the end.

    Say it every time. Not 99% of the time, every time.

    Solving climate change will create jobs, strengthen the economy, and strengthen our national security.

    Say, did I mention that solving climate change will create jobs, strengthen the economy, and strengthen our national security?

    You there in the back row, in the Fox News section, did you hear that solving climate change will create jobs, strengthen the economy, and strengthen our national security? Yes, that’s right, solving climate change will create jobs, strengthen the economy, and strengthen our national security. Remember that.

    Every time.

    Solving climate change will create jobs, strengthen the economy, and strengthen our national security.

  7. Mark Shapiro says:

    My second suggestion for rhetoric would be to keep saying:

    “The pursuit of a new energy economy requires a sustained, all hands on deck effort . . .” It’s a good line, and he has used it before. We are all in this (in the problem and in the solutions) together.

    As a sweetener for the deniers/delayers and those worried about the economy, I would note that every time an individual conserves energy, they are earning tax free income for themselves. They are building their family’s wealth, tax free.

    And remember, “solving climate change will create jobs, strengthen the economy, and strengthen our national security”. (Okay, I’ll stop, but he can’t. He has to win over Revkins muddled middle and 100 million more.)

  8. Bob Wallace says:

    MikeB – I don’t think we “save” ourselves in the very short term by spending on either coal plants or wind farms. The ‘next six months’ stuff might not be the absolute best way to fix our environmental problems, but what we have to do to return people to work.

    What might we do “right now” that would help the economy and help the environment?

    Weatherization projects. Put a lot of unemployed house builders to work and get money flowing into companies that make insulation and caulk.

    Inefficient appliance buybacks. Create sales of efficient refrigerators and help both retail merchants and manufacturers.

    We could also call up every under-construction wind farm and solar “ranch” and ask if they needed any help – either low rate loans or wheels greased.

    We could also fund college scholarships for those going into green energy. Some people who need to retool could head to a junior college for quick training on how to work the wind farms. Those people are hurting for good help. How about “family support” scholarships rather than extended unemployment payments?

    Those are the sorts of things that can get some money flowing around our communities ASAP.

  9. Mark Shapiro says:

    Bob –

    Right as usual.

    David –

    The carbon tax could not be too high for my taste, but is using the word “tax” without the word “cut” immediately before or after even possible politically?

    I would push the “all hands on deck” idea and say that the more we conserve (earning tax-free income for individuals) and the faster we reduce emissions, the lower the need for a tax.

    In other words, conservation is a two-fer: you get tax-free income immediately and reduce the “risk” of a carbon tax.

    And keep reminding people of all the ways they can conserve.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    Mark Shapiro — I am legally required by my municipality to pay the local (regulated) garbage disposal compnay to haul my trash. This is hardly different than a tax, but I suppose we could call it a ‘trash disposal fee’.

    So I suppose we could call a fossil carbon tax a ‘fossil carbon dispoal fee’. I would suggest that this be collected a point sources such as gas wells, refineries and coal mine heads.

    I want one big enough to not only remove all current emmisiions but also start removing some of the 500 GtC of past emissions. If everybody paid their share of current emissions, then $15 per tonne of CO2 emitted would do. But not everybody will, so maybe $20 from those who can be required to pay a fossil carbon disposal fee. The 500 GtC is almost entirely the airfill from developed countries. Maybe the fee should be higher in developed countries, sat $35 per tonne of CO2 emitted.

    You might like to work out how much this would raise the cost of a gallon of gasoline. Some tens of cents is all. For 60% carbon bituminous coal that is $53 per short ton of coal which is currently selling on the spot market for about $130–140 per short ton. That will raise the price of the electricity so generated by a very few cents per kilowatt-hour.

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Oops. The fossil carbon disposal fee for 60% carbon bituminous coal is

    0.6 tonnes of coal gives rise to (44/12)x0.6 = 2.2 tonnes of CO2, close enough.
    So the fee is 2.2×35 = $77 per tonne of coal; that is $70 per ton of such (Central Appalachian) coal. That is about half the recent spot price so will definitely add to the cost of coal powered electricity.

    And if I had my way, nobody would escape through a grandfather clause.

  12. Modesty says:

    First, I was happy to see you put a coal moratorium where it needs to go, up front as the top priority. Thank you.

    Then, I was disappointed not to see any of the others make this *as* clear (although Taylor also mentioned it).

    Finally, I got really sad when I realized that only 4 of you even mentioned coal.

    But then again, what if all 14 of you had coordinated your messages? Would Yale Environment 360 have published all 14?

    Do we, on purpose or otherwise, individually dilute our common message, in order to be heard at all?

    Is this part of the communication problem?

  13. Mark Shapiro says:

    David –

    Whatever carbon tax you propose, I’ll vote for double. But you and me together plus every single reader of ClimateProgress won’t be enough overcome the votes of republicans and blue dogs. And the howls of “tax and spend” and “wreck the economy” and “save Joe the trucker” would be wall-to-wall on cable TV.

    The silver lining is that they’d stop talking about Blagojevich and Caroline Kennedy for a couple minutes, but that’s not worth sinking a presidency.

    Unless we could sell the idea of a carbon tax. Tom Friedman has a good idea for selling a gas tax.

  14. David Lewis says:

    I studied John Holdren’s speech as delivered at the Berkeley Energy Symposium: The Rosenfeld Effect.

    John Holdren has no doubt about why policy is needed: “climate change is the most dangerous of all human impacts on the environment from any origin”.

    He believes that a successful energy policy should start to:”help society identify and deploy a suitable mix of energy supply and energy end use options from the currently available menu”

    He puts this point first, after all his years of study and thought.

    I’d agree. This goal alone, because to achieve it you would need to achieve some greater unity in society than there is now, so that it believed it needed a new mix, would seem to be a pretty big goal for the first 100 days. But, let’s say the Obama Administration is capable of leaping over buildings in a single bound, flying faster than a speeding bullet etc.

    Holdren, in that same speech, states what to do at the same time: “promote technological advances that improve that menu over time”

    He stressed technological improvement for 5 reasons, 2 of which are controversial among climate activists. That is, he said if technology was improved, it would be possible to

    “use the world’s abundant coal resources without intolerable impacts”

    and it would be possible to

    “expand the use of nuclear”.

    A decision to junk the existing coal fired electricity generation industry worldwide based on the opinion of many activists that carbon capture can’t be developed for ten or twenty years AND to junk nuclear and not develop new forms of it as Hansen advocates for instance, seems to clash with what John Holdren believes must be done.

    Stephen Chu is also on record as signing off on the desirability of ramping up development of carbon capture. The report he co-chaired for the IAC which said that about CCS, was less definite about nuclear than Holdren is, but said this about nuclear: “A transparent and scientifically driven re-examination of the issues surrounding nuclear power and their potential solutions is needed”

    Will the great enthusiasm for these two Obama appointees turn to disillusionment when it becomes apparent what they stand for?

    Obama is calling for an approach that is based on science. The enthusiasm for Holdren and Chu seems to be because after the long darkness of the Bush years science will no longer be abused in this country. But at some point climate campaigners will need to make stronger arguments than they have so far as to why they reject these particular solutions, i.e. nuclear and carbon capture, that scientists repeatedly put forward.

    The arguments I’ve heard, on anti CCS for instance, seem like people repeating what they believe to other believers: people pick out and even modify sentences from pro CCS reports and use them to back up their anti CCS assessment as if the pro CCS report was anti, etc. But the pro CCS reports are as gold plated as reports get, put out by organizations like the IPCC, MIT, and the IAC. The IAC is the joint creation of every science academy in the world.

    People like Holdren and Chu are coming to power after many years of study and thought. You want to change what people like this think and you’re going to have be the best at making the argument you’re making that there is.

  15. YES WE CAN reduce our CO2 production by 40% in 8 years!:
    Nuclear reactors can be FACTORY made fast. Nuclear power will LOWER the price of electricity by 30%. Standardized, assembly line manufacture of nuclear reactors to replace coal burners will lower the price of electricity even more.

    YES WE CAN replace every coal burner on earth with a nuclear reactor in 8 years, AND WE CAN MAKE A PROFIT ON THEM. We can provide electricity to the Chinese peasants for AT LEAST 30% LESS than what they would pay for electricity from coal. Want a high paying green job? Work at the nuclear reactor factory that we have to build, or at a Canadian nuclear reactor factory.

    Of course, a much nicer scenario should have happened: Americans should have replaced all coal fired power plants with nuclear reactors long ago. That would require that Americans had been educated properly. ALL high school students should have taken 4 years of physics, 4 years of chemistry, 4 years of biology and 8 years of math, starting in 1930. If that had happened, the coal industry would have had no hope of driving Americans paranoid of all things nuclear.

    I have no connection with the nuclear power industry. I have never had any connection with the nuclear power industry. I am not being paid by anyone to post on Alternet. My sole motive is to avoid death in the collapse of civilization and to avoid the extinction of humans due to global warming.

  16. What the coal companies know that most people don’t:

    As long as you keep messing around with wind, solar, geothermal and wave power, the coal industry is safe. There is no way wind, solar, geothermal and wave power can replace coal, and they know it. The coal fire has to keep on burning in case the wind dies or the sun goes down. If you quit being afraid of nuclear, the coal industry is doomed. Every time you argue in favor of wind, solar, geothermal and wave power, or against nuclear, King Coal is happy. ONLY nuclear power can put coal out of business. Nuclear power HAS put coal out of business in France. France uses 30 year old American technology. So here is the deal: Keep being afraid of all things nuclear and die either when [not if] civilization collapses or when H2S comes out of the ocean and Homo “Sapiens” goes extinct. OR: Get over your paranoia and kick the coal habit and live. Which do you choose? I put quotation marks around “Sapiens” because it is not clear that most of us have enough brains to avoid extinction when it is clearly predicted and the safe path has been pointed out. Nuclear is the safe path.

  17. Bob Wallace says:

    David – I have a great deal of trust in an administration that promises to be data based and pragmatic.

    I think that once the science, economics, and politics come together we’ll pursue best solutions. What might sound best to a working scientist might well be tempered by economic or political realities.

    Based on what I know at this point in time nuclear will not be part of the solution. But I don’t know it all, certainly not as much as those with access to the ‘best informed’ have.

    Perhaps the stuff that the pro-nuke people say has some truth to it. If so, dealing with nuclear waste and doofus-created nuclear contamination might be less damaging than global climate change. If building hundreds of new reactors is our only hope, then we have to go for it.

    (My odds on the pro-nuke people are correct? Lower than a worm’s belly….)