In his first State of the Union address, President Barack Obama described “clean coal technology,” nuclear energy, natural gas, and offshore drilling as “clean energy.” His administration has let the fight against global warming slide, even as scientists warn that global emissions must start declining within five years to avoid catastrophic climate disruption. Bowing to powerful lobbies, the administration is further hurting job creation and economic competitiveness with a budget that emphasizes coal and nuclear subsidies at the expense of renewable energy. Challenged by 1Sky director Gillian Caldwell at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting, Obama fiercely defended his energy policy. “We are not going to get all our energy from wind and solar in the next twenty years,” Obama said. He argued that energy companies simply can’t repower America with truly clean energy:
They can’t do it. The technology’s not there. I’ve got a nuclear physicist in my Department of Energy who cares more about climate change than anyone and he will tell you you can’t get it done just with that — so you’ve got to have a transition period to do all this other stuff. Don’t be stubborn about it!
President Obama is confusing political reality with scientific reality. Technologists have described numerous pathways to clean energy by 2030 that don’t rely on coal and nuclear power, including:
— A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables, by Stanford civil engineer Mark Z. Jacobson and UC Davis transportation scientist Mark A. Delucchi [Scientific American, 11/09]
— Clean Energy 2030, by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist Jeffery Greenblatt and Google.org [Google.org, 11/08]
— Energy Market and Economic Impacts of H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, No International Offsets / Limited Alternatives Scenario, by the U.S. Energy Information Administration [EIA, 8/4/09]
To be sure, these scenarios would require a World War II-like mobilization to retool and repower the electricity and transportation infrastructure of the nation. The short-term benefits, however, would involve the creation of millions of green jobs, vast improvements in public health, and independence from petroleum dictatorships. The long-term benefit, of course, would be a good chance of keeping a habitable planet for human civilization.
President Obama erred when he claimed that he had no choice but to give coal and nuclear companies multi-billion-dollar taxpayer subsidies. The reason those technologies have not been yet developed is because there is insufficient market demand for low-carbon power — and R&D subsidies won’t change that. Only when the government puts a price on carbon pollution will clean power be profitable, and companies will make the investments to develop and deploy the needed technology. Obama should concede that his subsidies for the coal industry are a political necessity, not a scientific one.
“Don’t be stubborn about it!” Obama admonished climate activists. For the sake of his children, and the rest of the planet, he’d better hope they ignore him.
On February 9, Obama finally corrected his re-definition of clean energy:
I am very firm in my conviction that the country that leads the way in clean energy — solar, wind, biodiesel, geothermal — that country is going to win the race in the 21st century global economy. So we have to move in that direction.