Friday, November 7, 2008

Is Obama green?

After all the promises, will an Obama administration make progress on green issues?

Now that the long nightmare is over and Barack Obama is measuring the White House drapes (and ordering up a presidential dog house), it is time to ponder what the future will hold under his administration (For an intriguing framework to evaluate the election, see here). For those of us who view climate change, biodiversity, and sustainability as the defining issue of our time, we have to ask- what is in store?

Although John McCain stated his understanding of climate change and support of measures to mitigate it, it became clearer as the campaign progressed just how shallow that commitment was. When gas prices went up, he suggested a gas tax holiday. Not only would this have been ineffective in reducing gas prices, given a supply-constricted market, (effectively transferring money from the government to the oil industry), but insofar as it reduced gas prices at all, it would have been counterproductive to the central policy problem: reducing fossil fuel use.

The need to reduce fossil fuel use came up in the campaign in the guise of energy independence from foreign sources of oil and gas. In the absence of an actual debate on climate change and sustainability issues, that was welcome enough, but did not provide a direct contrast. The gas tax episode, McCain's choice of the retrograde Sarah Palin, the fact that his campaign was run by a bevy of lobbyists and former Bushies, its championing of off-shore drilling (remember "Drill, baby, drill!"?), its wildly opportunistic tenor as it drew into the station, and of course the fact that his administration would be staffed by Republicans and lobbyists, all indicated that a McCain administration might easily have been as environmentally paleolithic as the previous one, hard as that is to imagine.

The one decent policy that McCain pushed was permitting new nuclear power plants. Distasteful as they are from mining, proliferation, and waste perspectives, nuclear plants are carbon-neutral, and would provide temporary breathing room (!) while truly sustainable technologies travel down the price per unit energy curve. It is also conceivable that future forms of nuclear power may be highly efficient and proliferation-resistant. However, it is also quite possible that barring government subsidies (including the phenomenally expensive waste repository yet to be built), nuclear power is currently no cheaper than renewable power, so while nuclear might be part of a carbon-neutral mix and benefit from continuing research, it should compete on the level in a system where carbon emissions and other forms of pollution are properly priced.

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The Obama campaign had a distinctly more climate-friendly set of policy proposals. It stressed tax credits for renewable energy research, including plugin hybrids, higher taxes for oil companies, and several mandates- for renewable electricity production, higher vehicle fuel efficiency and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. It also proposed higher long-term goals for carbon emission reductions than did the Mc Cain campaign. These are all good policies, but they do not really bite the bullet, which must be to realign the incentives of the entire energy market in line with long-term sustainability to actually achieve those far-off goals.

Simply put, pollution, needs to be priced into the energy economy, raising the prices of fossil fuels in proportion to how dirty they are in all dimensions, including CO2 emission. The problem with renewable energy is not that there aren't enough government programs supporting research and development, but that its market prospects are unfavorable and uncertain, compared with oil and especially with coal. The oil market, though heading towards the crisis of peak oil (as is natural gas), is at the moment still at the mercy of Saudi Arabia, which can turn the spigot on at will and strangle the economics of high auto efficiency here in the US. In the absence of comprehensive pollution pricing, it would be minimally beneficial to set a floor price for oil at $100/barrel in the US (with the difference collected as tariffs by the government, if necessary), so that market participants have a consistent expectation of future prices around which to invest in conservation and alternative supplies.

Coal is even more abundant and cheap- the coal industry is able to externalize the costs of mind-boggling pollution from mining, landscape denudation, carbon emissions, mercury emissions, particulate emissions, etc., etc. Renewable power can never compete with coal, which is a virtually free source of energy, unless coal's external costs are priced in. The EPA has started to price / regulate a
few aspects of coal pollution, such as sulfur dioxide, particulate, and mercury emissions, but we have long way to go before coal's full impacts are accounted for (here in the US, let alone in China!).

Obama has consistently supported "clean coal", truly a black mark on his record and on his campaign. The only way to make coal clean from an emissions perspective (forgetting about its extraction impacts) would be to collect all emitted gasses, remove the witches brew of pollutants, and sequester all the CO2 elsewhere, such as underground. While sequestration is a matter of current research (large pilot plants have been promised, but none are working), my view is that this will never be a viable technology. CO2 takes a great deal of energy to isolate and pump back into the ground (40% extra required). Only a few types of geologic formations are amenable to this kind of sequestration. No one has any idea how well the idea will scale to the vast amounts of CO2 we would need to sequester. And to top it off, accidents could be truly catastrophic. If a CO2 field became uncapped or leaky, the heavier-than-air CO2 would be a deadly cloud, much like those naturally released from lakes in Africa, which killed 1,746 people in just one rural incident. CO2 sequestration (and "clean coal" generally), thus appears to be a high tech fake-out designed to give succor to a phenomenally dirty industry. (Another example is the hydrogen economy, especially the hydrogen-powered car, but that is a topic
for another day!).

Obama also promoted a "$1,000 Emergency Energy Rebate". Thankfully, this was not an energy voucher system that would counter the conservation incentives of high fuel prices, but was a broad per capita or per household payment simply labeled with an energy banner. So this ends up being neutral as far as sustainability issues go, and little was heard about it later in the campaign.

Lastly, Obama has time and again sworn that regular people's taxes will not go up ... not by one cent. This kind of read-my-lips pledge is dangerous, especially when the federal debt needs to be pared down and when the carbon trading, or pollution pricing, or whatever means chosen to fulfill the proposed mandates of carbon emissions reduction and energy independence will doubtless be construed as new taxes by the average person, not to mention the opposing party. There is no way we can do what needs to be done in reducing greenhouse gas emissions simply with tax credits, federal research, and encouragement. We also can not rely on fossil fuels becoming scarce enough (by way of peak oil, let alone shortages of coal) to create the price incentives that will be needed, within the short time frame that we have to forestall increasingly serious climate effects. Even now, Canada is busily tapping its vast tar sand deposits, using precious natural gas and water in one of the most wasteful fossil fuel extraction enterprises imaginable, but which is economical in the current energy pricing system.

Obama's record is one of legislative compromise and accommodation. That kind of leadership alone is not going to cut it to address climate change at the requisite scale, which goes against the short term interest of every single moneyed interest group, and indeed every single American. The lesson that Obama gave us in his campaign is that political change takes people power. He can only act with a political wind at his back, in the form of wide-spread support, developed through painstaking debate, education, and inspiration. So our role as citizens is to keep this issue on the front burner. And to continue to educate each other about the facts of the matter- to push for long term thinking over short term laizzes-faire, and to reinforce the moral imperative to forestall this ultimate tragedy of the commons.

Ideally, Obama would devote some of his time and energy to the green agenda, educating Americans to the seriousness of climate change and biosphere protection generally, its long-term implications, and the sacrifices needed to meet them. But the campaign spent little time on the topic, understandably enough (Al Gore was treated as a somewhat mad uncle). Thus it is not clear that the mandate of the new administration extends to the farther reaches of the public attention span, which is where environmental sustainability languishes. It was very promising that in his victory speech, Obama touched on "a planet in peril" as the second of his pending superhero tasks. Hopefully he will expand on that theme at the inauguration and thereafter. Endangered organisms great and small have no political voice- it is up to us to care about them and care for them.

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