Hope piling up?

ObamaHope.jpgI realise that I have had several posts on signs of hope from the Obama administration, the last only four days ago, but I can’t forbear offering another one. I have just read the President’s address given to the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, and it confirms the enormous changes, indeed reversals, which seem to be under way in the US so far as climate change is concerned.

First, he announced major research investment and included energy in its goals:

I’m here today to set this goal: We will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development. We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science. This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history.

He reaffirmed returning science to its rightful place:

Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over. Our progress as a nation – and our values as a nation – are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy…

And went on to announce his determination to engage the scientific community directly in the work of public policy, announcing the appointment of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, with which he plans to work closely, and which will be co-chaired by John Holdren his top science advisor. Environmental science will be part of its focus.

He stressed the intention of his administration to ramp up participation in international scientific and technological co-operation, including climate change and energy challenges. Clean energy is right at the top:

… in no area will innovation be more important than in the development of new technologies to produce, use, and save energy – which is why my administration has made an unprecedented commitment to developing a 21st century clean energy economy.

Our future on this planet depends upon our willingness to address the challenge posed by carbon pollution. And our future as a nation depends upon our willingness to embrace this challenge as an opportunity to lead the world in pursuit of new discovery…

The fact is, there will be no single Sputnik moment for this generation’s challenge to break our dependence on fossil fuels. In many ways, this makes the challenge even tougher to solve – and makes it all the more important to keep our eyes fixed on the work ahead.

That is why I have set as a goal for our nation that we will reduce our carbon pollution by more than 80 percent by 2050. And that is why I am pursuing, in concert with Congress, the policies that will help us meet this goal.

My recovery plan provides the incentives to double our nation’s capacity to generate renewable energy over the next few years – extending the production tax credit, providing loan guarantees, and offering grants to spur investment. For example, federally funded research and development has dropped the cost of solar panels by ten-fold over the last three decades. Our renewed efforts will ensure that solar and other clean energy technologies will be competitive.

My budget includes $150 billion over ten years to invest in sources of renewable energy as well as energy efficiency; it supports efforts at NASA, recommended as a priority by the National Research Council, to develop new space-based capabilities to help us better understand our changing climate…

He announced first time funding for an initiative recommended by the Academy,to be called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, to undertake high-risk, high-reward research, and concluded his remarks on energy by saying:

My administration will also pursue comprehensive legislation to place a market-based cap on carbon emissions. We will make renewable energy the profitable kind of energy in America. And I am confident that we will find a wellspring of creativity just waiting to be tapped by researchers in this room and entrepreneurs across our country.

The nation that leads the world in 21st century clean energy will be the nation that leads in the 21st century global economy. America can and must be that nation.

We have eschewed leadership in New Zealand but following may yet prove quite challenging.

13 thoughts on “Hope piling up?”

  1. Yup, the talk is great. VERY good. Inspiring, even (but then we are quickly getting accustomed to expecting no less from the man).

    But let’s see the rhetoric grow legs and actually WALK.

    2050 target – great;
    2020 target – not so great.

    0% by 2020? Seriously, this just ain’t gonna cut it in an international context. These sort of numbers will NOT help get a good outcome by the end of the year in Copenhagen. They will allow NZ, Australia, Japan and Canada to say “see, ours is better than Obama’s” and drag that 2020 target way down.

    Jonathan Pershing (head of US climate delegation, ex WRI) argues that the US can make deeper cuts later than 2020. But that doesn’t help us get to the global peak in emissions by 2015 – which scientists say is needed if we want to keep us 2degC or below by 2050.

    A later, deeper cut would also allow more time for more fossil fuel infrastructure (coal-fired power stations, for example) to be built, thus making it more difficult for those future Presidents to make the deeper cuts being promised by Pershing.

    yes, Obama is, like, wow. To hear a US president talking about ending our dependency on fossil fuels: wow.

    But let’s see him grow that mid-term target and then I’ll feel a lot better.

    Greenpeace did the math, by the way. The US Energy [R]Evolution , published in March, shows the US can get to 25% by 2020 with available technologies.

    The US climate policy is not yet science-driven. It’s a long way from Bush, but yet far enough.

  2. You are quite right to add a little cold water to my enthusiasm Cindy. I try to do it myself – hence the question mark in the heading to this post – but also want to welcome the statements and their implications. I’ve read both Obama’s books, and wouldn’t think he is interested in going down in history as a great speaker. The years as a community organiser alone point to more than that. If the science isn’t yet fully represented in the policy maybe it’s just a matter of a little more time – certainly I would have thought that scientists like Holdren and Chu would be unlikely to settle for less than effective action. But I wouldn’t want to see any letting up on campaigning pressure from Greenpeace and others.

  3. There was interesting comment today (it being 100 days since taking office) on the style of Presidency that President Obama is adopting. His initial moves were to try run things from the White House – but that wasn’t going down well – so he has changed to again rallying the country behind him with a series of campaign style speeches on all the issues on which he wants the support of the people. And it’s working for him. By getting the support of the country first he will be able to initiate the action that is necessary. Successful political action is only possible when the majority of the people are in agreement with the policy. Something that our own present crop of lawmakers could do well to remember.

  4. There’s something piling up. But it ain’t hope.

    “We’re seeing the reality of a lot of the North Pole starting to evaporate, and we could get to a tipping point. Because if it evaporates to a certain point – they have lanes now where ships can go that couldn’t ever sail through before. And if it gets to a point where it evaporates too much, there’s a lot of tundra that’s being held down by that ice cap.”
    -California Congressman Henry Waxman , 13/4/09
    Got your Homer icon handy?

  5. Steve, even relatively well-informed politicians will tend to screw up the terminology when they try to extemporaneously lay out several linked concepts. He didn’t screw up the concepts themselves. Substitute “melt” for “evaporate,” “permafrost” for “tundra” and “kept in place” for “held down,” and it’s all happy. That said, Waxman’s job isn’t to understand the science in any complex way (he never could), it’s to take the consensus advice of the scientists and turn it into policy. He is demonstrably very skilled at the latter, noting that scientists aren’t.

  6. Cindy and Bryan, there are some positive early signs, in particular moves by the EPA to clamp down on mountaintop-removal coal mining and to make it a lot tougher to get coal plant permits.

    The 2020 goal doesn’t mean much since such things are never a hard-wired consequence of clearly quantifiable steps. With cap-and-trade, e.g., Congress seems certain to hand the the utilities so many free initial credits that there will be little guaranteed progress by 2020 (and we’ll see about after that), even though there will be a pretense to the contrary. If the utilities can’t get coal permits, though, they’ll be forced into other means of producing power. Also, the Obama administration seems to be bent on getting a new long-distance grid in place ASAP, to make it possible for the utilities to shift substantially to wind and CSP even where local resources are limited.

    You can bet these very, very smart people (not just Chu, Holdren and Lubchenco, but the not-too-shabby White House policy types, plus people like Gore and Hansen at the periphery) are thinking in terms of how to lock in steps that can’t easily be derailed in the future, noting the unfortunate current example of NZ.

    On another front, Obama and Clinton didn’t waste a minute getting into serious negotiations with the Chinese, as an early agreement with them (that the Indians and EU can also sign on to) will provide impetus to other efforts and also be hard to undo in the future.

    So there’s a lot being juggled here, much of it not very obvious, and Congress starts to look like a side-show. Some of this stuff does get mentioned at Climate Progress, although you have to read between the lines a little.

  7. Steve

    yes, you’re right – there ARE positive early signs, esp the EPA’s intention to rule that C02 endangers human health.

    I would argue the 2020 goal DOES matter, in terms of both making the right signals to developing countries, and stopping the umbrella group from sliding out the back door.

    What say you about the global peak?

    Check out Nature today – two studies showing that we can only afford to burn around a quarter of today’s proven fossil fuel reserves by 2050 if we want to stay below two degrees C temperature rise.

    We’ve got a budget of 1000 Gt to burn between 2000 and 2050 and we’ve already chomped through a third of that.

    The lead author, Malte Meinhausen, says on the Pik Potsdam website :

    “… In practice, substantial reductions in global emissions have to begin soon, before 2020. If we wait any longer, the required phase-out of carbon emissions will involve tremendous economic costs and technological challenges – miles beyond what can be considered politically feasible today. The longer we wait, the more likely our path will lead us into dangerous territory.”

    The higher the emissions in 2020 the more difficult it will be to keep temp rise below 2 deg C.

    Obama’s target has everything to do with getting the international political will do take these steps.

    If you can’t change the science, you have to change the politics.

  8. Cindy, to be clear, what I expect for the U.S. law is a reasonable-sounding 2020 goal (that will fit with the treaty goal), albeit riddled with Congressionally-forced loopholes. The point is that the loopholes will be bypassed. Of course we have the same issue elsewhere, which is why the rubber will really have to hit the road in the big emitter negotiations.

    Malte and co. are humming Jim Hansen’s tune!

    Speaking of EPA rule-making, were you aware of this? Also expect that the EPA will let the California low-carbon fuel rule become the new national standard (following the path of the vehicle CO2 emissions rule), leading to a corn ethanol phase-out and the death of the Alberta tar sands.

    I forgot to mention two other Obamites in the energy/climate news, first the FERC chair:

    “Wellinghoff said renewables like wind, solar and biomass will provide enough energy to meet baseload capacity and future energy demands. Nuclear and coal plants are too expensive, he added.”

    And Interior Secretary Ken Salazar:

    “Offshore wind turbines could meet all of the US’ electricity needs, according to a report from the country’s interior department. Speaking at a renewable energy conference, secretary of the interior Ken Salazar said wind off the coasts of the lower 48 states had the capacity to generate a total of 1,900 gigawatts.” The report is here.

  9. Re peak oil, the wacky thing about the transition away from fosill fules is that there are four independently sufficient reasons to want to do it: Climate, security, peak oil and pollution. Ocean acidification could perhaps be considered a fifth on its own. A particular problem with peak oil is that if we don’t make the transition in a hurry the climate and acidification problems will get a lot worse die to a forced abrupt switch to cheap coal.

    Even more wacky is the extent to which big business continues to fight the inevitable in the face of all of this. Paul Krugman has a relevant comment.

  10. Or did you mean peak global temps? IMHO we’re not going to avoid 2C no matter what. Let’s hope the major tipping points are higher, although given the present behavior of the ice I’m not too confident about that. Regardless, we’ll be needing active measures to draw down CO2 to 350 ppm ASAP (per Hansen).

  11. Thanks for all of that, Steve. Wellinghof was actually quoting the Greenpeace Energy Revolution document i linked to earlier. 25% by 2020 at 1990 levels: possible. Politically in the US? unlikely. sigh.

    Don’t get me wrong – they’re saying all the right things… in lots of places and every day. the system there is so weird – a Govt that can’t actually introduce its own legislation… estimates are that the Waxman Bill’s 2bn tonnes of offsets could have fossil fuel industry happily pumping out C02 for 20 years.

    I’ll be at the next round of negotiations in Bonn, which will be just after Waxman bill goes back into the house (May 30), so it’ll be interesting to see what happens. I’ll let y’all know.

    The US has to put numbers on the table there. Unfortunately, Stern has already said the numbers won’t be much different from what we’ve heard before. Here’s what he said at his briefing:

    “MR. STERN: Oh, yes. Yes, we will be making submissions for the June meeting with the U.S. about numbers in particular. What I have said about this is that I think we will be fundamentally guided by what happens in Congress. Now there’s – there isn’t – there shouldn’t be any mystery about where the United States stands vis-à-vis numbers.

    There are now two numbers that are on the table that are relevant to look at. One is what the President has already said. It goes back to his campaign and it was repeated again in his budget and in other places, which is about a 14, 15 percent reduction from 2005, and about an 83, I think, percent reduction by 2050. And I actually meant to, but didn’t calculate what that would work out to in 2030. But it’s a – it would be a step down – stepwise, decreased from 2020 to 2050, so – or from 2012, really, to 2050. So that’s what the President has said.”

    Global peak? No, not oil, not global temps (2degC rise is about as much as the planet could take and even that’s questionable)…. I meant the peak in global emissions , which is the key thing. 2015 is a date mentioned in the AR4 low emissions scenarios. Scary, but true.

    Peak oil, according to Malte and Myles, ain’t the problem. we can’t burn the stuff we know about anyway.

    Ocean acidification – yikes.

  12. As we’re so clearly going to fall off the wagon for 2015, the issue becomes taking steps to lock in big reductions for the following decade. Stern seems to think we need future scary research results to get there. We shall see.

    Re peak oil, my point was that there’s a lot of economic flexibility associated with oil and gas. If we find ourselves running out of them before having made the transition away from coal, we’re in deep(er) trouble.

    Bonn, eh? My, grandma, what a big… carbon footprint you have. 😉

    Seriously, I’ll look forward to hearing the details.

Leave a Reply