climate change politics

Obama on climate change, finally

I always make a point of reading the State of the Union address. When the president is given a platform to cast a vision for the world’s most powerful country, it’s worth paying attention. I won’t comment on the whole speech, but this time I was pleased to see whole paragraphs about climate change. The issue has been notably absent from the political agenda in the last couple of years, presumably to avoid spooking the electorate. With the next four years in the bag, it’s time to start talking about it again:

For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.

This is good stuff, pointing out the impossibility of attributing individual events to climate change, but making a definitive statement about the science overall.  The ‘overwhelming judgement of science’ is indeed that this is happening, and it can’t be ignored. Actions mentioned include sustainable energy and and cap and trade mechanism for carbon emissions:

I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

Then there’s this, a rather interesting idea:

Much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together. So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.

The best possible use for fossil fuels is to use our current revenues from them to pay for the transition beyond them, so this is a smart idea. It’s also a nice bit of commons thinking, recognising that oil and gas can be a shared resource. And shifting transport “off oil for good” is bold  thinking.

It’s not all good. I’m not sure how “cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits” will help the climate agenda. Gas maybe, if it is replacing coal, but not the oil. That’s better left in the ground. And ultimately, Obama’s assertion that “we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth” may prove incorrect too. There are certainly plenty of growth opportunities in clean energy, retrofitting and all manner of green developments, but the long term absolute decoupling of economic growth and carbon emissions looks very unlikely. Unless I missed it, there was no mention of international agreement on climate change either. If the US is going to get serious about the climate, it has to engage internationally too.

For now though, I’m happy to settle with America talking about the climate again, and we will watch this space.


  1. Yes – we shall see. I also suppose I am not the only one who doubts that natural gas development has anything to do with climate protection or environmental protection at large, but everything with economic interests of oil and gas companies, with national security/energy independence and the simple fact that the world is running out of cheap energy. As I wrote elsewhere: it feels like burning the furniture to keep the house warm and call that wood a “resource”.

    A true “market based” solution actually might have benefits, if that means that the true costs of all energy forms are taken into account. How likely is that?

    “International” indeed is notoriously absent in American political speeches. As if the state of the union had nothing to do with the planet it travels on…

    1. it’s interesting how the energy security agenda criss-crosses the climate section of the speech. They seem to be rather conflated. But then energy security is a vote winner and the climate isn’t, so maybe it’s a deliberate thing to connect them in people’s minds.

  2. I notice that Obamas exact words were not to shift “transport” of oil but only “to shift our cars and trucks off oil” which suggests the thinking behind it is still that we’ll be able to keep driving as much as we want. I have a feeling this is more about the Auto industry which is desperate for an alternative fuel to keep them going, than about the environment, but then I am generally very cynical about anything politicians say.

    1. I noticed that too – no public transport revolution in the land of the car. But then we all know that trams and cycle paths are part of the UN plot to abolish private property and create a one world government, right?

      1. @Jeremy: I really keep forgetting the part about the UN conspiracy…
        @Andy: It is easy to get cynical about politics. Especially in Germany these days. The political class over here really is in dismay. We have a social democratic candidate running for chancellor who demanded more money before the election campaign even began (and who is entangled in various shady affairs surrounding his connections to the banking scene). Our federal minister of science and research had to go after her Ph.D. was sacked by her university on grounds of plagiarism. The title of her dissertation was “Person und Gewissen – Studien zu Voraussetzungen, Notwendigkeit und Erfordernissen heutiger Gewissensbildung”, i.e. “Person and Conscience – studies on prerequisites, necessity and requirements of contemporary conscience formation”. Well. Those are rough times for political satirists and comedian when all the events contain their own punch-line. We had a president who kept being invited a bit too often to the Island villas of his entrepreneur friends and who threatened a journalist not to publish a certain piece. Which, well, kind of backfired. The traffic minister of lower Saxony who was caught for drunk driving and the minister for integration in Hesse who made racist remarks about his own ethnically Vietnamese party head are hardly worth mentioning… So we look to Obama for guidance, but he, too, does not exactly live up to the Nobel infused expectations and aspirations. What we have, I’m afraid, is a crisis of authority at large that extends well beyond the political arena. Who can we trust? MDs sell their patients, prescribe unnecessary drugs, make unnecessary surgery, corrupt policemen, soldiers running amok, pedophile priests, dishonest scientists, greedy managers, lying bank advisors, engineers and technicians cutting edges etc. etc.. Who to trust? And how can we expect to move and shift anything at all without trust?

        1. If we can’t trust our politicians, then we shouldn’t be giving them more power over us. So we should look to market solutions rather than big government ones.

  3. Believe it when he’s golfing with Sierra Club Execs. instead of Oil and Gas Execs… disgusted at the disconnect of the importance of our habitats and water with elation to our best grounds keepers… our predators- who create offsets to CO2 emissions!!!! When will fact and science prevail over special interests lining pockets, when?! Speeches mean nothing without the actions aligning with the rhetoric!

      1. @Jeremy: They take Obama Nene and Alala watching in Hawaii, I suppose….and Monk seal watching.

        @Devon Chap: laissez fair Market solutions means two things: a) trust pure chance. b) trajectories that inevitably will lead to concentrations, cartels, oligopolies, plutocracy – possibly even fascism. Fascism may well be a final stage of capitalism. Interestingly it also may well be a final stage of over regulation. Right wing and left wind ideologies in Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union looked amazingly similar. Freeman Dyson once suggested we need laws and regulations that assume us all to be crooks. Too much Freedom will lead to a very unfree world and you paradoxically need market regulations to assure a free market. Otherwise you get a single steel company, a single utility company, supermarket chain, a single Ma Bell – or Cartel of Ma Bells – of everything in the end that will be the all dominating power on Earth. Imagine we’d have no cartel regulations and no banking regulations at all. Shall we leave international regulations to the free market, too? We already had wars for resources lead by hired company guns. The “free market” is an illusion. It never existed. It never will exist. The question is not whether we need regulations, only what kind of and how much. The big questions are indeed not economic questions but value questions. In the past one big argument against state involvement was that state authorities tended to be far more inefficient than private actors. Often that was true, often even dramatically so. But we do live in a different time now. There is far more knowledge about management, not to mention the information technology available, and whether state actors or public private partnerships are efficient quite simply depends on the way they are organized.

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