In his State of the Union speech, Obama called for a big boost in low-carbon energy, but didn’t mention carbon, climate or warming, as I noted last night. Other people noticed, too.
Matthew Hope, a researcher in American politics at the University of Bristol, found that Obama has mentioned ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’ or the ‘environment’ fewer times on average than his two predecessors, as an article today by the UK’s Guardian notes. That piece, which quotes my post, also quotes Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, “an expert on environmental communications,” saying Obama’s “approach has several major drawbacks.” I asked Brulle for all of his thoughts on Hope’s key word analysis and Obama’s speech.
Brulle has a lot to say that is worth reading. Here it is:
From a political viewpoint, it is clear that Obama is not talking about climate change. The analysis based on key word counts is interesting, but not definitive. The idea that both Clinton and Bush are more “green” than Obama cannot be maintained from just a key word analysis. With all of the Obama administrations faults, this administration has done more than either Clinton or Bush in actually implementing regulations and standards to encourage actions to reduce GHG emissions.
What I see going on here is that Obama is following the rhetorical advice of David Axelrod and groups like ecoAmerica, who argue that the American public is unwilling to deal with climate change. [See Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ “” and that’s a good thing].
So rather than make the case for climate change and the necessity of action, this approach focuses on “clean” energy and research and development as a way to make a transition to a different energy mix. This is considered the popular, no pain, “energy quest” approach that relies on a mystical belief in R&D to address climate change. The Obama administration appears to have bought this approach completely as the politically popular way to address this issue. In my opinion, this approach has several major drawbacks, and effectively locks in massive and potentially catastrophic global climate change.
1. It ignores the reality of GHG concentrations and their effects: Many climate scientists think we are perilously close to, if not beyond CO2 concentrations that will drive irreversible feedback effects. Taking a technology only approach, without meaningful mechanisms to drive adoption of renewable energy, means further delay in initiating the massive GHG reductions that are needed to deal with climate change. The results of increased R&D on transformation of GHG emissions from electricity production are decades off. By then, the critical thresholds of CO2 concentrations necessary to initiate feedback effects will have been passed, and any measures implemented then will be too little and too late to avoid catastrophic climate change.
2. It fails to address climate change in a meaningful way: There are four parts to this point:
- Its focus on electricity production only addresses about 34% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. It does nothing to address the other 2/3 of GHG emissions.
- Calls for transformation of the electrical system to 80% clean energy by 2035 ignores several major logistical challenges, including sunk costs in existing power plants, the infeasibility of CCS technology, absence of scalable and commercially available energy technologies with lower prices than existing fossil fuels, and lack of industrial capacity to build that much new energy systems in that short of time.
- It failure to provide a cost mechanism or regulatory requirement to drive this transition. As the IPCC and NRC Report “America’s Choices” analyses of mitigation make clear, without a strict legal requirement or cost on GHG emissions, the development of renewable energy systems will not occur at the needed scale.
- It ignores other mechanisms to reduce energy use: There are several means available to address GHG emissions that do not require additional energy R&D, such as building and transport energy efficiency measures. See The World Development Report for 2010 by the World Bank (http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTWDR2010/Resources/5287678-1226014527953/WDR10-Full-Text.pdf — The graph on P 207 is especially good). By committing to an R&D approach only, without addressing readily available options to reduce GHG, the Obama administration is taking a politically popular but ineffective approach.
3. The rationale for energy transformation is absent: The Obama approach fails to provide any rationale for the need to transform our energy system to “clean” (whatever that means) energy systems. If we give the administration the benefit of doubt, and assume this means renewable energy, this implies a need to pay more for energy. Why do we need to do this? Coal is cheap and plentiful, and does not entail national security concerns. The reasoning for the need for the transformation is unstated. That is because the Obama administration cannot bear to say the words Climate Change. The only real reason to transform our energy systems is to address GHG emissions. But by failing to even acknowledge the threat posed by climate change, the reasoning for an energy transformation is very thin.
4. This rhetorical approach fails to build a consensus to address climate change: The Obama rhetorical approach is both intellectually dishonest and short sighted. Climate change poses an immediate and growing threat to human populations around the world. Yet this threat is completely ignored, and the public is given a thin and uncompelling rationale for transformation of energy systems. As numerous analyses have shown (IPCC and NRC), a real approach to effectively dealing with GHG emissions will require substantial transformations of both our economic and energy systems. This will involve the implementation of politically unpopular actions, such as a carbon tax. Rather than attempting to start the process to build a public consensus to undertake these meaningful actions, the Obama administration has adopted the short term strategy to gain political advantage by advocating a popular but ineffective approach to dealing with climate change. Thus this rhetorical approach continues to maintain the cultural delusion that we can continue business as usual, and that climate change does not require substantial and politically painful actions. While this strategy might prove to be advantageous in the short term, it just delays the inevitable necessary actions, and saddles future administrations and generations with a heavy political, economic, and environmental burden.
Sorry about being so long in my response, but I think this sort of approach is just kicking the can down the road to the next administrations, and really fails to meaningfully address climate change. I only hope that the climate scientists’ projections are wrong, and that we have more time to deal with climate change than they think. It is clear that meaningful climate change legislation is dead in the U.S. for the next several years, and apparently Obama is unwilling to make the case for action if he is reelected in 2012. By failing to even rhetorically address climate change, Obama is mortgaging our future and further delaying the necessary work to build a political consensus for real action. It really appears to me that the issue of climate change is not going to play an important role in the 2012 election debate, and that even if Obama wins, he will have built NO mandate for action in this area. Will it be too late in 2016 to take meaningful action on climate change? I fear so and hope not.
I mostly agree. I do think climate change may play a role in 2012 simply because the GOP candidate will have to toe an extremist anti-science, pro-pollution line. But I agree that if Obama doesn’t put climate on the agenda rhetorically in a serious way, it’s hard to see how he would have any mandate whatsoever if he wins a second term.
I’ll repeat my main conclusion from last night: Given that the President’s major energy investment proposals are DOA “” and that the low-carbon standard really only makes sense as a major policy initiative in the world that is trying to reduce carbon emissions “” I do continue to think that it is both pointless and foolish, catastrophically so, in fact, for him to refuse to talk about global warming or climate change with so much of America watching.
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