Obama can get a better climate bill in 2010. Here’s how.

Update: The Center for American Progress has post “Timeline: A Fight for State Fuel Efficiency Standards, President Obama Moves on Issue After Years of Roadblocks.”

My new Salon piece is out: “Real science comes to Washington: Myopic conservatives and the media still don’t get global warming. But if anybody can preserve a livable climate, Obama’s amazing energy team can.”

Besides exploring how the media clearly doesn’t get the dire nature of the climate problem [duh] and how Obama’s amazing team of radical pragmatists clearly do, I discuss what Obama needs to do in 2009 to justify not passing a major climate bill this year.

I am trying to make lemon out of lemonade here. I can’t find a single reporter, staffer, or wonk who thinks we’re going to have a climate bill this year. As the NYT reported earlier this month, “advisers and allies have signaled that they may put off … restricting carbon emissions.” Noting that many in Congress “question the pace at which lawmakers will be able to move on a climate legislation,” Climate Wire (subs. req’d) even quoted the uber-progressive Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, Barbara Boxer as “acknowledging this” and saying, “If that doesn’t all come together within a year, I would expect EPA would act.”

Boxer’s comment gets at one of the two key issues, namely, what does team Obama need to do in 2009 to make up for the fact that there won’t be a climate bill? The other issue is, what does team Obama need to do in 2009 to get a better bill next year than they could get this year? I have already blogged on one part of the answer to the second question — they need to get China onboard with a hard emissions cap (see Part I, Does a serious bill need action from China?).

Here is my answer to both questios from the Salon piece:

Can radical pragmatists preserve a livable climate? It can if we stop digging the hole we’re in. That means stopping the construction of coal plants that don’t capture and store most of their carbon dioxide. Fortunately, the Supreme Court decided against the Bush administration in 2007, declared carbon dioxide a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to start regulating it. So Obama almost certainly has all of the authority he needs now to block new dirty coal plants.

Obama needs to pass in 2009 the mother of all energy bills. Once and for all, we must begin the process of changing utility regulations that encourage overuse of electricity, and instead strongly encourage energy efficiency. We need a nationwide standard that requires all utilities to draw a significant percentage of power from renewable energy sources. We need an effort, comparable to Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, to build a smart, 21st-century grid that can enable concentrated solar thermal power from the Southwest and wind from the Midwest, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles everywhere. [See “A smart, green grid is needed to enable a near-term renewable revolution” and “An introduction to the core climate solutions“]

Obama must begin high-level bilateral negotiations with China (or trilateral negotiations that include the European Union) to get a national commitment from the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter to cap their emissions no later than 2020. Such a deal would presumably be contingent on U.S. action, but would enable a much stronger domestic climate bill. We simply can’t solve the climate problem without Chinese action. And absent Chinese action in the next decade, the developed countries could never sustain the price for carbon dioxide needed to achieve meaningful reductions.

Obama must begin serious negotiations with both houses of Congress to write a climate bill that will reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels by 2020, and then to low levels by mid-century. The goal would be to bring this legislation to a vote in early 2010, ideally in conjunction with a China deal. [see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 8: The U.S. needs a tougher 2020 GHG emissions target“].

The goal of deferring the climate bill to 2010 is not merely to allow time to get China on board, but to undo the last eight years of disinformation and muzzling of scientists by the Bush administration.

[A 2007 report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee concluded: “The Bush administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.]

The American public — and media and cognoscenti — are not prepared for the scale of effort needed to preserve a livable climate. The Obama team needs to spend a considerable amount of time giving public speeches, holding informal meetings with key opinion makers, researching and publicizing major reports on the high cost of inaction and the relatively low cost of solutions. That simply can’t be done over the next few months, when the administration’s focus must be — and the media’s focus will be — on the grave economic

[I will elaborate on what I think Obama needs to do on the critical messaging effort in a later post. But it may be his hardest and yet most important task (see “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.”)]

Moreover, 2009 needs to be focused on what can be achieved in a bipartisan fashion. If, as seems likely, conservatives remain stubbornly blind to the scientific reality, then passing the climate bill will likely descend into a traditional partisan fight. A pragmatist like Obama should relish the fight. After all, if the GOP wants to put itself on the side of humanity’s self-destruction, then that political battle is best held in an election year, after a lengthy public education campaign.

Obama has already taken one key step that suggests he is prepared to do much more this year and next on serious climate action (see “Obama to push for California waiver that mandates cut in auto CO2 emissions“).

Related Posts:

16 Responses to Obama can get a better climate bill in 2010. Here’s how.

  1. PaulK says:

    build a smart, 21st-century grid that can enable concentrated solar thermal power from the Southwest and wind from the Midwest, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles everywhere.

    This is the absolute best economic stimulus – short and long term – the government can apply. Grid transformation should come before any other spending.

  2. MikeB says:

    PaulK, I’m not sure about that. While a grid upgrade is clearly near the top of the priority list, I think stimulus spending on housing efficiency might be a better choice, though it’s probably a close call. Housing construction is, rightfully, near dead right now, so there are plenty of unemployed construction people who could be installing insulation and better windows. That would immediately provide jobs in a hurting sector, and also reduce energy costs for anyone living in an older home. Importantly, this is the type of task that requires no ramp-up planning, spending could start immediately. Grid updates require planning, and probably 2-5 years before the effects are felt. We need it soon, but I’d start by attacking raw energy efficiency directly.

  3. Kim A says:

    Before we get all excited here and destroy our economy even further with energy mandates that will cost us all a lot of money in taxes or inflation or increased costs of goods and services or all of them, let’s make damn sure this is truly a looming disaster. Check out data not being reported in MSM….

    Also keep in mind that we may be about 3,000 years past due (give or take) for the next catastrophic climactic change…meaning an ice age. I don’t hear anyone addressing this issue which to me is a lot more harrowing.

  4. Joe, this is your key point – why there is no apparent readiness to go for the full climate package in 2009: “The American public — and media and cognoscenti — are not prepared for the scale of effort needed to preserve a livable climate.”

    You have the solution – “The Obama team needs to spend a considerable amount of time giving public speeches, holding informal meetings with key opinion makers, researching and publicizing major reports on the high cost of inaction and the relatively low cost of solutions.” Obama himself needs to do an equivalent of his race speech on this, and more than one.

    “That simply can’t be done over the next few months, when the administration’s focus must be — and the media’s focus will be — on the grave economic crisis.”

    Probably right. But as you well know a stellar opportunity will rise toward the fall in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate summit, which Obama is expected to attend. He and his team should be planning a growing crescendo of messages on climate beginning around September.

    But I would caveat just a bit that this is the time to be sending strong messages that the new energy revolution will be one of the strongest engines to pull the economy up. Underlying the economic downspiral is the old energy system and its consequences. Any coincidence that some of the highest mortgage foreclosure rates are in the exurbs, or that the housing market began to collapse as energy prices began to run up around 2005, with ripples back into the financial sector? Or that the core of collapse in the industrial economy is the auto industry with its backwards-looking product line? It is a fact that virtually every downturn since WWII has been preceeded by an energy price spike. I don’t believe the connections between the emergent depression and energy have been drawn to the extent they should.

    People who have read the history of that time know that even as the economy hit the trough new industries based on emerging technologies were growing, radio, movies with sound, aviation, for instance. They had been seeded in the first two decades of the century, were starting to grow in the 20s, but really took off in the 30s. This is a direct parallel with wind, solar, biomass, efficiency, smart grids, plug-ins and the range of new energy technologies. We seeded from the late 70s to the late 90s, and saw significant growth from then through the 2000s, just reaching the full take-off point in the last 2-3 years or so. These can be boom industries in the midst of the bust that ultimately spread their effects to the whole economy.

    Obama is messaging the green energy opportunity more than I have ever seen any president do in the past. He could amp this up with a steady series of speeches like the one he gave at the wind plant in Ohio before his inauguration to keep public attention focused on the role of old energy in bringing on the crisis and the critical role of new energy in economic revival.

  5. Renewables such as wind and solar are intermittent and therefore can’t provide reliable power to the grid, no matter how smart that grid might become some day. Much of renewable power must go to waste unless some form of battery or other storage can be found.

    Because of the unreliability problem, no more than 20% of grid power can be from renewables, and the rest must be from other sources: nuclear, hydro, and fossil fuels. Nuclear and hydro are maxed out in the US, for various reasons. Natural gas is expensive, and best used for peak load power in times of high demand. So that leaves coal for providing base load power, reliably keeping the lights on. Blackouts or dirty coal plants is the choice we are faced with because environmental science has been retarded for so long.

    The solution is to find some way to clean up the emissions from coal and to reduce the waste of water at thermal power plants. Cleaning up emissions should include cracking (not underground dumping) of CO2. So where is the clear national plan for doing that? I’m afraid that the “stimulus package” we are all counting on for improving the environment will be blown on “sequestration” and the usual pork extravaganza, leaving nothing for science which may come along later.

  6. @Wilmot…

    Hmmmm… Perhaps we could use energy efficiency to cut the need for power generation by 20 percent. For intermittent renewable energy, perhaps we could have one million mobile storage units online by 2015… and increase that number to 10 million by 2025 (they’re otherwise known as PHEVs). Perhaps we can harness wind, wave, geothermal, solar and find the optimal mix of each to overcome this hypothetical 20 percent bottleneck you describe. I live in Nova Scotia, and you’re right… The sun doesn’t always shine, but I can tell you that the wind is always blowing onshore, and the waves are relentless. We have 5,000 miles of coastline; we can supply consistent, reliable renewable energy to half of North America since we don’t need it ourselves.

    But that’s not all. Maybe we can add fuel cell stations to the grid that will use clean burning hydrogen that is created by intermittent sources to produce electricity during peak hours. Or perhaps we can burn biomass to produce power at former coal plants. Or maybe we can use solar thermal to create huge vats of molten salts that can store energy until we need that energy to drive steam turbines.

    Volvo runs three shifts at their Belgian manufacturing planet by combining renewable energy from four sources: hydroelectric energy from the grid, three 2-MW wind turbines and 28-MW photovoltaic array on site, and a 5-MW wood-burning heater which was combined with a retro-fitted oil-burning bio heater. They went from producing 15,000 metric tons of CO per year to zero.

    I’m sorry, I just don’t think your 20 percent renewable energy bottleneck holds much weight.

    And I’m personally thrilled that carbon capture and sequestration received minimal financing in the stimulus package. Like hydrogen cars, I think CCS is largely used to delay meaningful action by big industry.

  7. Please don’t even use the word “delay”

    Should we make a starving and thirsty man await the preparation of a full course meal?

    There are thousands of points of change, no one climate bill can be comprehensive enough to fully address the issue. This is the most important issue of our time, and should be constantly addressed by Congress.

    Our eco-pathic (like a sociopath) GOP deserves no compromise. We may strategically time major political actions – but AGW marches forward despite what bill is in front of Congress. When the next clear catastrophe crosses the line, then why was there any delay?

    CO2 levels are constantly and consistently rising -Why not tie action to point increases? CO2 is over 385 today, in two years 390 is totally plausible.

    I could see great success in swarms of legislation, executive actions, and judicial rulings – each on some small part of the problem.

    I don’t need to see my government putting wrapping paper and a bow on anything right now. The big, huge bills seem to be part of the problem anyway.

  8. David B. Benson says:

    Kim A — The last processional possiblity to begin a stade (massive ice sheets) maxed out about 2000 years ago. Even without the AGW at that time (for which readd W.F. Ruddiman’s popular “Plows, Plagues and Petroleum”) it was too shrimpy a forcing to succeed. The next possiblity begins about 20,000 years from now; that is isn’t big either. The one after that, a big one, is around 50,000 years from now.

    No ‘ice ages’ for a long, long, long time.

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Arg. precessional

  10. @ Richard Levangie — Nova Scotia sounds like it has a sustainable energy future, unlike much of North America. Conservation and alternative fuels (except corn ethanol) certainly must be expanded as much as possible, but the power needed for the US and rapidly developing countries such as India and China dwarfs what can be scrimped together by those means. In the near term (before 2050 at least) I’m afraid we’re stuck with coal to get that power.

    So we need a moon shot effort to develop the technology to get coal emissions under control. Clean coal propaganda obscures the fact that we don’t know how to do post-combustion carbon capture, nor do we know what to do with CO2 once we have captured it.

    There may be a way to recycle carbon, getting liquid vehicle fuel from CO2. See The Idaho National Lab has demonstrated simultaneous electrolysis of CO2 and water to make syngas (CO + H2), a process they have dubbed “syntrolysis”.

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Wilmot McCutchen — Once there is a sufficently high concentration of CO2, around 38,000 ppm looks to be enough, enhanced mineral weathering will permanently remove it.

  12. Roger says:

    “Carl Jung, one of the fathers of psychology, famously remarked that ‘people cannot stand too much reality.'” Thus begins James Kunstler’s 2005 book, “The Long Emergency, Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.”

    Two points from the above: 1) Unfortunately, it only takes one denier, out of many experts, to keep the majority of citizens happily bewildered–because they’d much rather believe the denier; and 2) Yes, ‘climate disruption’ (the preferred, new term) is, for better or worse, a ‘long emergency–‘ unlike any that we homo sapiens have seen before.

    Point two is interesting because studies of human behavior in emergencys shows that most people (~80%) ‘zone out’ in an emergency–essentially frozen until they either get a clear instruction, or figure out which way the rest of the crowd is headed. My point is that with climate disruption being an emergency, and with no clear instruction yet coming from our leader, most citizens are frozen into inaction, or worse, denial of the problem.

    What’s the solution? Mr. Mazza touches on it above when he mentions the need for President Obama to speak. I would go further, and suggest that the President should be urged to announce to the nation that he will make an important, prime-time speech concerning climate disruption within his first 100 days in office. (Within 30 days would be even better!)

    Obama hinted at what needs to be said in his address last week, when he referred to the problems we have as being both real and serious–and supported by data. But he needs to be more explicit than this, to clearly lay out the reality, the seriousness, and the urgency of dealing with climate disruption–in a way that will clarify things for the majority.

    Jim Hansen speaks of the huge gap between what the scientists know about climate disruption, and what the general public knows. He also speaks of the need to close this gap if we are going to get public support for the many aggresive steps that need to be taken this year, and beyond, in order to preserve man’s place on the planet. There is no quicker, simpler, less expensive way to close this gap than for Obama to give a special address on the topic. It will be his most important speech.

    Joe, maybe you can pass this idea along, through Dr. Holdren or directly.

  13. joebhed says:

    This is really silly.
    The progressive wing of the environmental movement is STILL proposing the auctioning of pollution allowances and then arguing over what percentage of that income needs to be redistributed back to “whomever”.
    Get OVER it.

    A carbon tax is the only logical solution to go forward.
    Don’t “international-ize” me.
    The American people do not deserve to, and should not, pay one nickel more than is absolutely necessary to achieve our carbon-balancing goals.
    Wake up lefties.
    The carbon tax is the solution that gets us there faster and cheaper than any of that unworkable Cap-and-Trade BS.
    Carbon tax NOW!

  14. Hannah says:

    These are good points. Warming Law has also laid out how Obama can get a strong climate bill (presumably cap-and-trade) in the next two years. It’s a good roadmap, focusing less on international negotiations and more on domestic steps he can take under CAA, EPCA, etc. stemming from Mass. v. EPA and other legal rulings. Crucially, the roadmap explains how to get industry behind a strong cap-and-trade bill — the strategy being basically make firms’ lives hell by encouraging a state-by-state “patchwork” of regulations, as wells as by implementing unpredictable command-and-control style regulations on the federal level, until major industries like autos and utilities are begging Congress for some comprehensive, organized leadership. See more here:

  15. Frustrated Reader says:

    Thoughtful comments in the blog, but who are “you”? “You” should do the reader the courtesy of signing your article, rather than just saying “in MY Salon article…”.

  16. Joe says:

    Some 95% of posts are by me, Joseph Romm, and essentially all other posts have the authors name.