Climate Change and the State of the Union Address

i-ad9657c4a95ea2c8a4e8bbddd35e291a-President_Barack_Obama_Delivering_State_Of_The_Union_Address_2012-thumb-250x416-72165.jpgI liked Obama's State of the Union Address, and I liked the fact that a lot of other people seemed to like it. He made strong and positive statements about energy.

Imagine what we could accomplish ... A future where we're in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren't so tied to unstable parts of the world....

Tonight, I want to speak about how we move forward, and lay out a blueprint for an economy that's built to last - an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values....

... and his comments about traditional energy called for greater use of natural gas, which if used correctly, provides some advantages over coal and even oil, as it is shipped (usually) without the use of fossil fuels, is cleaner, and is often otherwise wasted during recovery of oil.

His call for opening up new oil reserves was tempered with a reality check.

I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy.... I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here. We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That's long enough. It's time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that's rarely been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that's never been more promising. Pass clean energy tax credits and create these jobs.

And, he talked about conservation.

At one point, Obama revealed that he is directing the Executive Branch, partly in the form of the military, to develop energy conservation and alternative energy programs.

... tonight, I will. I'm directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes. And I'm proud to announce that the Department of Defense, the world's largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history - with the Navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year.

Which is a biggish drop in a very large bucket, but will serve as proof of concept, and which will probably have some positive spin offs.

Having said all of that, there was one sentence in the State of the Union Address which should give us all pause. Obama refers to something we all already know, and something that we should all be very concerned about, and which is probably the one single thing we should all have on the top of our priority lists as we parcel out our own personal and political energy over the next year or so:

The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change.

True. Troubling. In fact, infuriating.

Obama put his finger on the reason that the United States Government can not effectively, or even ineffectively, address climate change: The political difference between the left and the right. Or, really, the left and the center vs. the right. This is not a difference in perspectives from climate science or the engineering of energy technology. It is not a (legitimate) difference in interpretation of the science. It isn't even a difference in what people would like to see as the outcome of widespread implementation of Fossil Carbon-Free energy technologies. It is, rather, a simple difference in power, and by power I don't mean electricity. And just as importantly, the usual polarization, whereby a Republican automatically wants the opposite of what a Democrat wants, is strongly accentuated by the knee-jerk reaction (with emphasis on "jerk") that the Right Wing has against anything Obama wants, and to put a slightly finer point on it, and to be completely honest, the reaction by the Right Wing to anything that our first Black President wants. (See: President misidentifies "The defining issue of our time ..." for more discussion of climate change and the SOTU Address.)

Obama probably did the right thing in sidestepping climate change, and admitting that we need to side step it for the time being in order to get other things done. Those of us who do not subscribe to that view would have preferred, perhaps, a fire and brimstone demand to step up our national efforts to address Global Warming and the other issues related to the high rate of release of fossil Carbon into the atmosphere. We might have liked to have seen some of the victims of aridification, tornado swarms, regional drought, parasite-affected forestry and agricultural failures in the US and elsewhere, in the gallery seats where real people sit as emotional sidebars in every State of the Union Address. But, President Obama chose to not do that, and it is easy to see why he made this choice.

There is a way to fix this. The current election cycle in the US involves not only the office of President, but also, every single member of the House of Representatives and a bunch of Senators and other officials. Candidates are being chosen now, and party platforms are being written. In the next State of the Union Address, we need the President (who will be, hopefully, the same guy as gave the address last night!) to be able to make a strong statement about addressing climate change. The way this can happen is if more members of congress are on board with this, either because they drop the facade of pretending we can put this off for any longer, or because they are actually engaged in implementing real science-informed policy.

Find out who is running for nomination to Congressional office in your area. Find out which candidates, if any, support science-based policy. Tell them that you like this about their candidacy, volunteer to work for their campaign, and send them 25 bucks. If there are no candidates like this in your area, contact the campaigns of those that are running and tell them you want them to engage in science-based policy. Don't send them that 25 bucks unless they show promise, and seem sincere. If you live in a district or state with an anti-science Representative or Senator, work against them and do so with the explicit overt intention of working against the anti-science representatives we have now in Congress.

One way to enter into a conversation about science-based policy (including climate change) with your representative is to ask them if they've signed The American Science Pledge. From the Science Pledge web site:

We need candidates of both major parties who will lead on these tough science questions, and who will reassert the primacy of knowledge and science as the best basis for informed, effective, and fair public policies in a diverse nation.

In order to reflect candidates' commitments to basing public policy decisions on knowledge, versus opinion or belief, we need a vehicle. The Contract from America, the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, and the No Climate Tax Pledge all seek to restrict reasoned debate. We need a pledge for reason, equality, transparency, and freedom. A pledge that expands reasoned debate. We need an American Science Pledge.

The American Science Pledge asks candidates to commit to the kind of civic-minded leadership citizens are owed in a democratic republic. It seeks to separate freedom lovers from authoritarians, data-based decision makers from those governed by "but faith, or opinion," and independent thinkers from ideologues.

You might also have a look at this talk by Shawn Otto (he's behind the Science Pledge), and listening to this interview with Shawn, or even buying his book. And no, I'm not Shawn Otto in disguise trying to hawk books. It's just that Shawn's book and his talk are very current and perfectly represent my position on Science Policy.

i-d02077d58e1a1b2572786482fc58c336-Sandra_Sund_-1-e1310866230686-222x300-thumb-222x300-72167.jpgIf you happen to live in the Third Congressional District in Minnesota, please also consider supporting, and by supporting I mean attending the Caususes, candidate Sharon Sund. I'm very impressed with her position on the issues, and she is a fully science-policy oriented candidate. In fact, she's an actual scientist!

Sharon double majored in College in Biology and Chemistry, and has a Master's degree in Technical Communications, and has been working in the high tech industry, including alternative energy, since college.

And of course there is more that you can do, but this is a start. Do something!

Here's the "enhanced" version of the SOTU Address:


Photo of Obama from the White House site; Photo of Sharon Sund from her campaign web site.

More like this

In 2008, I was visiting the Nobel Conference held annually at Gustavus Adolphus college in Minnestoa. The conference was on Human Evolution. The college provided space in a large room for people to have their lunch, and while I was having lunch on the first day, I noticed a table off to the side…
... maybe they'll actually do something about them. Remember the Democratic and Republican party debates that were held just before that major international meeting about climate change, participated in by every country in the world? Of course you do. Do you remember the candidates' responses to…
I support and endorse Sharon Sund for US Congress. Sharon will represent the Third District in Minnesota. For years, the Third District, in which I live, was represented by a moderate Republican, Jim Ramstad. Though I never voted for him, it was not all that annoying that he was in Congress…
In his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama called for significant government investment in nuclear energy, telling Congress that "to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe…

From Obamaâs 2012 StateoftheUnionAddress; ONLY one mention of climate change (crisis):
âThe differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. But there's no reason why Congress shouldn't at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation.â âThis is a crisis?
And NO mention of climate change in his 2011 StateoftheUnionAddress either.
Occupywallstreetâs list of demands does not include climate change because of the bank funded CARBON TRADING STOCK MARKETS and governments taxing the air we breathe. Climate change money would be better spent on real people.
Yes pollution is real but CO2 fears were not. Now we can preserve, protect and respect the planet instead of holding the CO2 gun to our childrenâs heads.

Behold the TWIT

Crap, it's hard get the average Joe to agree that taxing the wealthy a bit more makes sense, so careful thinking will usually fly way over their heads. This is a criticism of us, not of Obama.
He's coming to my little town Friday, and I wonder if he will bitch us out a bit about the cost of tuition rising so fast. We do deserve some punishment perhaps.

This article might add a little perspective or hope to the American situation and Obamas SOTNA re climate change. Several years ago I read a statement that said that America would reduce its carbon emmisions by doing nothing as technology would reduce it by about 3 to 4% per an and that appears to be what is happening to some extent.

U.S. carbon dioxide emissions continue to track lower than year 2000 levels, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported on Monday, extending this centuryâs downward trend in U.S. emissions. The new data rebut assertions that the United States needs to impose new restrictions on coal-fired power plants and other sources of carbon dioxide emissions.
Interestingly, EIA reports U.S. emissions rose more than 15% during the eight years of the Clinton-Gore administration but have declined since.
The primary reason for emissions remaining on a downward trajectory this century is the increasing number of natural gas-fired power plants. Recent discoveries of immense amounts of natural gas trapped in shale rock, coupled with the development of new technologies to capture and produce such shale gas, are driving natural gas prices down. U.S. power plants currently produce 50% more power from natural gas than during the year 2000. Natural gas power emits approximately 40% less carbon dioxide than coal power. (Natural gas power slashes many other pollutants tracked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by more than 80%.)
The EIA data reveal three important lessons for our energy economy and global warming concerns.
1.Free markets work. Private sector entrepreneurs and corporations, working in their own financial self-interest, discovered the natural gas and developed the technologies to recover it in an economically productive manner. Top-down government restrictions that stifle economic activity are not the sole or most desirable means of reducing carbon dioxide emissions even if we accept for the sake of argument the assertion that humans are creating a global warming crisis. Private entities have developed the means to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in a manner that benefits our economy.
2.Anti-fracking activists are endangering human health and the environment. Natural gas power emits merely 20% of the carbon monoxide of coal power, 20% of the nitrogen oxides of coal power, less than 1% of the sulfur dioxide of coal power, less than 1% of the particulate matter of coal power and less than 1% of the mercury of coal power. These improvements are in addition to cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 40%. When opponents of the production of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing techniques (also known as fracking) present highly speculative environmental claims unsupported by sound science to shut down natural gas fracking, they are merely serving to increase the emissions of a multitude of pollutants and carbon dioxide. Far from protecting human health and the environment, they are shutting down a vital source of environmental improvement.
3.There is no need for federal or state restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions. Although global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rapidly rise, U.S. emissions continue their 21st century decline. Global emissions have risen by 25% since 2000, while U.S. emissions have declined. Blaming the United States for this rise in global emissions and insisting on dramatic cuts in U.S. emissions is about as logical and effective as losing your car keys during a hike in the woods but looking for them only in your local Starbucks because the light is better there and the amenities are preferable to a search in the middle of the woods.
Moreover, U.S. emissions restrictions would have no real-world climate impact. China alone emits more carbon dioxide than the entire Western Hemisphere combined. Chinese emissions are rising at a pace of roughly 10% per year and have more than doubled since 2000. China alone is responsible for 75% of the growth in global emissions since 2000. Even if the United States completely and immediately eliminated all carbon dioxide emissions, in less than a decade China would add more new emissions than what the United States eliminated. Importantly, China has insisted over and over again that it will not accept carbon dioxide restrictions regardless of what the United States and the rest of the world does.
In a world where gloom-and-doom predictions and baseless environmental scares capture media headlines, real-world emissions data argue against jumping off the global warming economic cliff like so many clueless lemmings.

By kevin Hearle (not verified) on 25 Jan 2012 #permalink

Perfect replay of a Forbes article by James Taylor, except no references.

A couple comments on the article posted by KH:

1 - "Free markets work". This is a vague and meaningless statement within the context of global warming pollution, and an oversimplification suitable for the tea party crowd. The fundamental issue with carbon emissions is that the full cost of environmental damage is externalized from the price of the carbon emitting energy source. So a free market that just searches for the cheapest sources of energy does not necessarily minimize or even reduce the environmental damage caused by that energy. In effect the cost of that energy source (when factoring in the damage to environment) is partially being subsidized -- by future generations.

Here's a ficticious and simple example: Imagine an oil pipeline with a small leak. Imagine this leak is such that, over the entire time of operation of the pipeline, fixing it would cost more than the cost of what is lost in the leak over it's lifetime, even if the cost of environmental damage due to the leak were to greatly exceed the cost of fixing the leak. Without regulations, what financial incentive would the pipeline operator have to fix the leak? The answer is, of course, exactly none, as fixing the pipeline would always be a losing proposition for the operator. Only under a properly regulated market, where the price of the oil correctly factors in the environmenal damage (acheived through some sort of regulatory framework) would there be financial incentive enough to get the leak fixed.

2 - Saying that the China emits more than the US, therefore we don't have to do anything more than what we are already doing really won't get us (globally) far in terms of negotiations to cotrol global co2 emissions. This is just scapegoating. The truth is that we *all* have to make changes. Consider these additional facts, not mentioned in the artice (I won't bother posting references as the data are readily available):
- While the emissions in china are now in fact greater than ours, the difference is not that great -- both china and the US emit, per country, about 1/5 of the world's co2 emmisions each.
- If you look at co2 emissions per capita, the US emits co2 at almost 3x the level of china. Should we have no responsibility for this whatever?
- If you look at cumulative emissions, since the start of the century the US has emitted way more than china, again by a factor of about 3x. So in terms of the total 'already done' damage to the environment the US again has had a much larger impact than China.

I think from that it follows we probably bear a greater responsibility at this point than China as well, and certainly more than what the article suggests, which is apparently to let the free markets work and keep doing what we are already doing....

The biggest dissapointment regarding the energy policy portion of the SOTU address was the complete lack of mention of nuclear power. We really need to emphasize R&D on the latest generations of nuclear reactors. In particular thorium reactor technology seems very, very promising (higher energy density, much lower and less radioactive waste, and possibly much higher efficiency than current reactor designs). Nuclear energy is also by far more energy dense, more reliable and more easily scalable than many of the renewable alternatives, including solar, wind, wave etc.. It really needs to be a major component of our energy strategy.

By any conceivable standard, Obama's energy record has been a disgrace, or a joke, depending on your mood at the moment. If you care about carbon emissions, you should hate Obama's decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline. Not only would the pipeline decrease the US "dependence on foreign oil," a supposed goal of the administration, but cancelling it means more CO2 because Canada will ship the tar sands crude to China. I agree with the above criticism r.e. nuclear--but as long as Harry Reid remains in the Senate no spent fuel rods will ever be buried in Yucca Mtn. The 1 million electric cars promised by Obama seems even more improbable today than ever, given the battery fire issues experienced by the Chevy Volt. Solyndra seems destined to define the solar industry, with an Obama fundraiser getting half a billion dollars in stimulus money (it didn't work in the USSR either). Wind farms likewise will never replace coal-fired plants, and they pose land use woes that proponents never want to talk about (until, like Ted Kennedy, they block your view of the ocean). It's time we had an honest talk about the real costs and benefits of all these energy sources.

By johnathan birks (not verified) on 26 Jan 2012 #permalink

It's a small but concrete step that will be hard to turn around once it has picked up 3-4yrs of momentum. It's also pretty well known that the military brass see AGW as a seriously threat to global stability, so I think they will put in a decent effort. The Navy are especially concerned since most of their infrastructure is at the waters edge.

But the best bit is it will make Inhofe's head explode.

@johnathan birks - Keystone XL would have done diddly squat to reduce the US' dependence on foreign oil for a number of reasons

  1. That oil is foreign to begin with - it's Canada's not the US'
  2. it's the wrong type of oil - there's no internal market in the US for this type of oil
  3. All of the Keystone XL oil was destined for shipment overseas once processed in Texas