Obama's Renewable Energy: What Happened to Global Warming?

Looking back on the State of the Union

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Green technology supporters got a boost from Tuesday's State of the Union when the president said he wanted renewable energy sources to power 80 percent of US energy needs. Despite this position, though, Obama's speech left both sides of the the green energy debate grumbling. Environmentalists aren't happy that Obama framed green technology in strictly aspirational and financial terms, saying it was an opportunity to retrofit American industry and to keep the US competitive. This approach let him sidestep hot-button terminology like global warming and climate change. Meanwhile, some on the right think his proposal is just "cap and trade" by another name.

Here's how the arguments shook out:

  • Obama Lied  As far as the Wall Street Journal's Kimberley Strassel is concerned, Obama is just sneaking in cap and trade, which died in the Senate last year, under a new name. But this time, Strassel says, it's cap and trade with a more onerous twist:
What the president was in essence calling for—in happier, fuzzier, broader language—is what policy wonks refer to as a "renewable portfolio standard." This is a government mandate requiring that utilities produce annually a specific amount of their electricity from renewable sources—wind, solar, biofuels ... Under Mr. Obama's new proposal, the government skips the tax part and outright requires the use of costly renewables.
  • Clean Energy Is a Trap  Strassel also says that Obama's sleight-of-hand isn't limited to giving cap and trade a new look. She considers the push for clean energy merely a way to dupe Congressmen with districts that could benefit from a nuclear energy bump, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, or a clean coal endorsement, such as Sen. Dick Lugar, to sign on to the 2035 pledge. Strassel warns it would be an incredibly dumb move:
What the White House also knows—as do most sensible people—is that these promises mean little. The president has made grand nuclear gestures, but his regulators continue to sit on projects. Clean coal remains a pipe dream. Here's to betting that if and when the president's "clean energy" standard kicks in, the only mandated sources utilities have to choose from are wind, solar and biofuels.

  • It'll Work for Now  Grist's David Roberts says he's onto Obama's tactic of sneaking in green policies under the cover of economic potential, but doesn't object. However, he is infuriated that people are confusing green energy with climate change policies. Roberts says the two are completely parallel agendas. Climate change is political, Roberts says, but green tech is economic. Furthermore, Roberts says these two have been running side by side and not gaining any ground  because the market isn't demanding the cleaner energy and the energy suppliers aren't behind the green tech. Separating them makes political sense, but Roberts says the time for the divide is running out.
Of course every U.S. politician supports "clean energy" in one way or another, so in some anodyne sense it's bipartisan. But the argument for strong, focused government policy in support of clean energy -- in the absence of climate change -- is no stronger than the argument for supporting . . . any other industry that's likely to be big in the 21st century.
What could add the sense of urgency necessary to justify immediate and substantial public spending? What elevates the need for RD&D in clean energy above the need for RD&D in other industries and technologies?
Right: the looming threat of climate change.
  • Obama Can't Be Trusted  For the Daily Sundial's Aimee Lastrella, Obama's subtlety was a line in the sand. "For someone who doesn't mention climate change in his State of the Union Address, I really don't think that this the environment is at the top of your priorities. I voted for you. You are my president and I support you. But you kind of let me and the environment down with this one," she writes.

  • Being Cute Could Cost Us  1Sky's Director of Communications, Liz Butler, was also not pleased. Writing in The Huffington Post, Butler says Obama made a huge error by saying clean coal and nuclear power are green.
Now is not the time for allusion -- it's time to spell things out. The fossil fuel industry poured more than $500 million into lobbying and political campaigns in 2010 alone, which tells me they mean business.

We cannot leave any room for compromise in the face of such severe threats. We're talking about our last line of defense to address climate change and stop toxic dirty coal. This is the line in the sand. We need the president to stand up for the American people against polluters on the most critical global issue of our times.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.