News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

Obama Vague on Climate Change Policy For Next 4 Years

The President on a conference call discussing restoring power after Hurricane Sandy with electrical utility executives | Photo: White House/Flickr/Creative Commons License

California came out of the recent election well-armed to take a leading role in the U.S.'s climate change mitigation strategy, with voters approving tax hikes to fund renewable energy just as the state's carbon cap and trade program goes into effect. But despite the resounding victory by the climate friendlier party in the Presidential election, it looks as though California won't be getting much more backing from the feds in getting off fossil fuels. In his first post-electoral press conference, held Wednesday, President Obama said his second term climate change policy will involve "study" and "education," but that he won't be pushing any climate mitigation strategy that might slow economic growth.

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Obama's statements on climate change -- the most extensive in many months -- came in response to a question by New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler, who asked:

In his endorsement of you a few weeks ago, Mayor Bloomberg said he was motivated by the belief that you would do more to confront the threat of climate change than your opponent.

Tomorrow you're going up to -- to New York City, where you're going to, I assume, see people who are still suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which many people say is further evidence of -- of how a -- a warming globe is changing our weather.

What specifically do you plan to do in a second term to tackle the issue of climate change?

And do you think the political will exists in Washington to pass legislation that could include some kind of attacks on carbon?

Obama's response, as transcribed by the Washington Post, was long on ringing sentiment but short on actual strategy. He started by saying he "believe[d] climate change is real" and "impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions," spoke in somewhat hyperbolic tones about the effect of some of his first term policies like tightening automotive fuel standards and increasing renewable energy, and talked about investing in "breakthrough technologies" that might remove carbon from the atmosphere.

But when Obama shifted from past accomplishments to his plans for the next four years, things suddenly got a whole lot more vague:

But we haven't done as much as we need to. So, what I'm going to be doing over the next several weeks -- next several months is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers, and elected officials to find out what can -- what more can we do to make short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then, you know, working through an education process that I think is necessary -- a discussion, a conversation across the country about, you know, what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we're passing on to future generations that's going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.

I don't know what either Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do at this point, because, you know, this is one of those issues that's not just partisan. I also think there are regional differences. There's no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices. And, you know, understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anybody's gonna go for that. I won't go for that.

If on the other hand we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth, and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that's something that the American people would support.

So, you know, you can expect that you'll hear more from me in the coming months and years about how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and helps moves this -- moves this agenda forward.

Note how the timeframe the President referenced started out as "weeks," went to "weeks and months," and ended up being "months and years."

No mention of specifics, though several short-term issues are right at hand to be mentioned -- the possibility of extending the Federal Wind Production Tax Credit, for example, due to expire in six weeks. The Obama administration's policy as described Wednesday involves no hard targets, merely discussions with scientists and bipartisan attempts to move agendas forward -- but not agendas that aren't focused on jobs and growth.

Scientists and engineers have been discussing what we need to do about climate change for more than a decade now. There's always room for more creativity, for more innovation, but the basics have been settled for quite some time. The U.S. needs to stop burning coal for electrical power immediately. The U.S. needs to research and develop grid storage to make intermittent sources of renewable energy capable of providing base load power. The U.S. needs to promote distributed generation as much as possible to make the grid less prone to failure. The U.S. needs to tax carbon and use the proceeds to establish a national Feed-In Tariff. And the U.S. needs to do that on a timescale of months, not years. President Obama is a master of political compromise, but there's no compromising with chemistry and physics. The non-policy he described Wednesday spells doom for those among us who are most vulnerable to climate change.

Doom, that is, unless states like California don't wait around for the Feds to set the pace.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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