Obama talks science

We still aren't going to get a presidential debate devoted to science. So far, though,we have the Democratic nominee's elaborated responses to 14 questions put to him and his Republican counterpart by the Science Debate 2008 group. Here's two of Barack Obama's responses, with italicized annotation from me, on the subject of climate change and energy, which really should be considered one topic.

2. Climate Change. The Earth's climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change--a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research? Are there other policies you would support?

Obama: There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively.

It is sad that anyone should feel compelled to state the obvious. But as we learned with the selection of Sarah Palin as vice-presidential candidate for the GOP, some powerful people still don't believe in anthropogenic global warming. Maybe after this election we can start getting right to the meat of the matter.

First, the U.S. must get off the sidelines and take long-overdue action here at home to reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions. We must also take a leadership role in designing technologies that allow us to enjoy a growing, prosperous economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

There's that arbitrary 80-by-2050 goal again. That's not the strongest target among mainstream Democrats. Bill Richardson upped the ante by calling for 90% by 2050, but given that it's relatively close to what we'll probably need to do ;;;; eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions altogether ;;;; there's no point in being too critical. Besides, we'll be able to accelerate any serious strategy to a higher number and closer date.

A more substantial criticism might be that we should aim for a specific concentration of atmospheric CO2-equivalent gases, say 350 ppm, as this gives us more leeway to adjust tactics as the science comes in. But again, that might be considered picking nits.

With the right incentives, I'm convinced that American ingenuity can do this, and in the process make American businesses more productive, create jobs, and make America's buildings and vehicles safer and more attractive. This is a global problem. U.S. leadership is essential but solutions will require contributions from all parts of the world--particularly the rest of the world's major emitters: China, Europe, and India.

No argument there. Except to say that we need to remove the existing incentives that make subsidized fossil-fuel-dominated business-as-usual so successful.

Specifically, I will implement a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. I will start reducing emissions immediately by establishing strong annual reduction targets with an intermediate goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Ambitious, but not nearly as ambitious as getting rid of fossil-fuel-generated electricity within 10 years as Al Gore would have us do. Jim Hansen, if he wasn't just giving free advice, would close all non-CCS coal-fired plants by 2020, which would take care of 50% of our electricity emissions. Perhaps Obama should be thinking more imaginatively.

A cap- and-trade program draws on the power of the marketplace to reduce emissions in a cost- effective and flexible way. I will require all pollution credits to be auctioned.

Excellent. Conservative plans that would simply hand out the credits would be a recipe for disaster.

I will restore U.S. leadership in strategies for combating climate change and work closely with the international community. We will re-engage with the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the main international forum dedicated to addressing the climate change problem.

Good to hear, but we need more specifics in terms of what we will do with those countries that refuse to play ball once we're back in the game.

In addition I will create a Global Energy Forum--based on the G8+5, which includes all G-8 members plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa--comprising the largest energy consuming nations from both the developed and developing world. This forum would focus exclusively on global energy and environmental issues.

No harm there.

I will also create a Technology Transfer Program dedicated to exporting climate-friendly technologies, including green buildings, clean coal and advanced automobiles, to developing countries to help them combat climate change.

It is perhaps unavoidable that a candidate would pander to Virginians by embracing the myth of clean coal. There is no such thing, carbon capture is 15 years away at best, won't work for most power plants and does nothing to avoid mountaintop removal. Again, perhaps this is just campaign rhetoric that can be forgotten once in office.

3. Energy. Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. What policies would you support to meet demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

Obama: America's challenges in providing secure, affordable energy while addressing climate change mean that we must make much more efficient use of energy and begin to rely on new energy sources that eliminate or greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. My programs focus both on a greatly expanded program of federally funded energy research and development and on policies designed to speed the adoption of innovative energy technologies and stimulate private innovation.

First, I have proposed programs that, taken together, will increase federal investment in the clean energy research, development, and deployment to $150 billion over ten years. This research will cover:

$150 billion isn't really all that much, not spread over a decade. Doubling that figure would demonstrate a real commitment, but given the mess in which the current administration is leaving the country's economy, we can't expect ideal-world solutions.

⢠Basic research to develop alternative fuels and chemicals;

Not sure what an alternative chemical is. First time I've come across the term. But there's nothing wrong with putting some more chemists to work. If there are any out there in need of a fellowship.

⢠Equipment and designs that can greatly reduce energy use in residential and commercial buildings - both new and existing;

⢠New vehicle technologies capable of significantly reducing our oil consumption;

⢠Advanced energy storage and transmission that would greatly help the economics of new electric-generating technologies and plug-in hybrids;

This is perhaps the most welcome element of Obama's energy plan. The need for better energy storage technologies cannot be exaggerated. If we had better batteries, for example, it would make solar and wind power much more attractive options. Not that they aren't now, but...

⢠Technologies for capturing and sequestering greenhouse gases produced by coal plants; and

It would be foolish to abandon all CCS research. But why focus on coal? Why not look for ways to capture carbon from gas turbines? Again, unless you can mine coal without making a mess, it should be relegated to the scrap heap of bad ideas.

⢠A new generation of nuclear electric technologies that address cost, safety, waste disposal, and proliferation risks.

Similar to coal pandering, it seems you've go to pretend to like nuclear. Obama's wording seems designed to appease nuke fans while not committing to anything until we've solved problems we're probably never going to solve. Breeder reactors, for example, would do away with some economic arguments and greatly reduce the waste disposal problem, but create a high proliferation threat.

I will also work closely with utilities to introduce a digital smart grid that can optimize the overall efficiency of the nation's electric utility system, by managing demand and making effective use of renewable energy and energy storage.

We probably need a massive investment in upgrading the grid, but that's a start.

Second, it is essential that we create a strong, predictable market for energy innovations with concrete goals that speed introduction of innovative products and provide a strong incentive for private R&D investment in energy technologies. These concrete goals include:

⢠Increasing new building efficiency by 50 percent and existing building efficiency by 25 percent over the next decade, and taking other steps that will reduce the energy intensity of our economy 50 percent by 2030;

Now we're talking. In combination replacing fossil fuels with clean alternatives, that kind of schedule might be close to what we actually need to do.

⢠Increasing fuel economy standards 4 percent per year and providing loan guarantees for domestic auto plants and parts manufacturers to build new fuel-efficient cars domestically;

4 percent a year will scare Detroit, but it should be possible to do better than that. Given that what we need are entirely new ways of propelling automobiles, it might be better to set larger incremental goals, say 25 per cent every five years, instead of assuming we can gradually make cars more efficient.

⢠Extending the Production Tax Credit for five years and creating a federal Renewable Portfolio Standard that will require that 10 percent of American electricity be derived from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025; and

Again, this is nowhere near what will be necessary to bring emissions down to where they should be. By 2025 we should be aiming for closer to 50%.

⢠Ensuring that regulations and incentives in all federal agencies support the national energy and environmental goals in ways that encourage innovation and ingenuity.

I will also encourage communities around the nation to design and build sustainable communities that cut energy use with walkable community designs and expanded investment in mass transit.

Encourage is one thing. Providing significant funding support it another.


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I would add that the most immediate step to be taken is to start replacing coal burning power plants by natural gas. Here is where we can put the chemists to work, namely investigating the extraction of natural gas from coal with the goal of sequestering the removed carbon as a solid (e.g. calcium carbonate), rather then in the form of CO(2). The notion that we should aim for the phaseout of coal mining is pie in the sky and will never pass the congress, given the number of Senators from coal mining states. Coal gasification is essential to getting them on board.

We should also encourage the various transit agencies to invest in natural gas powered transit vehicles to replace the current diesel powered ones. I don't know about other transit agencies but WAMTA in the Washington DC area is well advanced in this regard (about 1/3 of the fleet is now powered by natural gas).

I would also have to take exception to Mr. Hrynyshyns' negative view of nuclear power plants. If France can produce 75% of its electricity from nuclear power, certainly the US can do better then 20%.

The Federal Renewable Portfolio Standard is to provide relatively short term stability to renewable energy producers. Think of it more like a demand guarantee to appease financial backers of alternative energy (and efficiency/conservation enabling) companies.

The carbon tax should provide the main driver for increasing the proportion of renewable (and nuclear and 'clean coal' should those ever make any sense) power generation. This is a pretty 'right hand' (aka market based) approach, but I think that makes the most sense here (unlike Healthcare... sorry just another pet peeve.)

BTW: SLC, In comparison to the US, France gets a huge chunk of their energy by not having to generate it in the first place. AKA efficiency and conservation. I'm not anti-nuclear per se, but no way in hell a nuclear power plant should ever be 'fast tracked'. Actually having effective regulating agencies (not industry insiders, GOP loyalists, and cronies) is also kind of important. (This goes for opening new areas offshore and in ANWR for drilling too. Possibly ok in theory, but we have to make sure practice must resembles theory too.)

Re travc

Why don't we just adopt the French standard for nuclear power plants? They don't seem to have any problem with untoward events occurring.

U.S. leadership is essential but solutions will require contributions from all parts of the world--particularly the rest of the world's major emitters: China, Europe, and India.

Most of the CO2 emitted from China and possibly India is proxy for the west - US and European goods!

If we were to stop buying from them then that would reduce their output...

And McCain's answers to the questions are....

...... ................ ................. ???

Well, anyway he was a POW, so that qualifies him to make energy policy.
Besides he can get some expert advice from his Creationist Girl-Friday who can then ask her husband who works for the oil company...

OMG, I'm pinching myself - is this for real?

With the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States and his coming inauguration in January, many are predicting his impact in specific areas.