Obama takes Politically Practical Approach to Climate Change

Ken Silverstein | Dec 04, 2011


The inability to win agreement to make firm cuts in greenhouse gas emissions remains the biggest impediment at the current round of global warming talks. The United States is part of that blockade, arguing that if the developing nations don’t join in then this country would be economically disadvantaged.

That’s long been the U.S. position. But it has not been the traditional position of President Obama. In the first leg of his presidency, he helped lead the fight to enact a cap-and-trade system as the primary means to get businesses to reduce their carbon emissions. That idea passed one chamber of Congress but gradually died as the country’s economic situation worsened and as Capitol Hill’s political composition changed.

The general position of the United States is that a voluntary effort is the best short-run course to take. That’s what the U.S. envoy to the United Nation’s Climate talks in Durban, South Africa Todd Stern is saying. At the last round of negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, the participants said that this would have to do until 2020.

Environmental critics here and abroad note that such a view has at least one critical  scientific shortcoming and contains at least one political round-about: Scientifically, such groups as the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund are saying that the experts are warning that this tactic falls short of what will be required to avert potential disaster.

“Three years later, America risks being viewed not as a global leader on climate change, but as a major obstacle to progress,” 16 such groups said in a letter.

That’s why the European Union is pressuring the United States, which emits 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, to sign a binding agreement to make specific carbon reductions and to do so by 2015. President Obama won’t do it. When things were humming along, he was all for environmental progress but has since pulled back because of the economic lag and the political realities.

Falls Short

The objective now among like-minded thinkers is that global temperatures must be limited to increases of no more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. That would require an 80 percent cut in carbon emissions from where they now stand. The United Nations has said that greenhouse gases must be curbed by 3 percent annually if that is to be achieved.

“Those who seem to think that it is enough for current pledges to stay as they are up to 2020 seem to be overlooking those facts,” says Artur Runge-Metzger, chief negotiator for the EU in a story that appeared in the UK Telegraph. Voluntary cuts do about half the job necessary, he says.

U.S. reticence is causing others to back away from joining a second global pact that follows in Kyoto’s footsteps. That includes the EU, although because it has led by example, it is unlikely to surrender so quickly. But Russia, Japan and Canada are less eager to commit to hard cuts, although each is making strides.

As for China, its position is not new. It is trying to achieve much better living standards for its citizens and that requires the use of more energy. Basically, it wants to keep its economy growing in the 7-10 percent a year range. But it is also attempting to manage that by enacting renewable and efficiency programs.

One of the sticking points to advancing a global pact is how richer nations would assist poorer ones in cutting their emission levels. Last year during a summit in Cancun, Mexico, leaders established a $100 billion climate fund that will get additional funding over a decade. That money will also come from vendors that sell clean technologies.

While President Obama is doing what is politically practical, his critics are complaining that his “newfound” approach falls short. That course, however, is unlikely to change until a groundswell of support elevates the cause. Therein lay the conflict, pitting those with a sense of urgency against those concerned about any added economic hardship.

EnergyBiz Insider is the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Follow Ken on  www.twitter.com/ken_silverstein


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An Oxymoron

Ken's statement -- "Scientifically, such groups as the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund are saying that the experts are warning that this tactic falls short of what will be required to avert potential disaster." is an oxymoron.  These groups have political agendas not scientific ones. 

We need to use all sources of DOMESTIC energy while developing and maintaining our economy.  High priced energy for any reason does a disservice to the lower income Americans among us.  Anti-carbon rhetoric is misplaced.  Once we can quit spending money on importing energy (oil), we will have the financial resources to support carbon reduction if it is found truly necessary.

Politically practical--how about just plain practical

What has happened in the USA is that DoE, EPA, and a number of states have attempted to force carbon dioxide emissions reductions.  A number of states have enacted RPSs that interfere with natural progression to more efficient generation technologies that would by definition lead to reductions in CO2 emissions.  EPA, along with the Department of Interior, is enacting regulations that would do the same thing by forcing the cost of burning fuels artificially high through increasing the cost of obtaining and burning the fuels and/or slowing up the permit process.  DoE is using taxpayer money to subsidize, via production tax credits and cash grants (in addition to special income tax breaks that other industries arguably get as well), wind, solar and other renewable energy projects which have the unfortunate characteristic of being very low capacity factor, highly variable in output, and subject to uncontrollable vagaries of weather.  This special treatment also interferes with normal market forces that would lead to construction of more efficient generating facilities and/or nuclear facilities to replace older plants.  Simultaneously, the renewables need backup due to their lack of reliable output so, the older, less efficient plants--that would, under normal market forces, be replaced by newer, more efficient ones--are being kept in service and frequently running in operating modes they were not designed for wasting still more fuel.

EPA and DoI need to quit jacking around with the permitting process and formulating new regulations multiplying the costs of doing business (and the costs of living).  DoE needs to quit wasting taxpayer dollars picking winners and losers in generating technologies.  Market forces would have driven more and more base load generating facilities to nuclear, super-critical coal, and gas turbine combined cycle.  Market forces would have driven more and more of the intermediate duty generating facilities to GTCC.  Market forces would have driven more of the older, less efficient facilities to repower with GTCC or shutdown.  I opine that market forces would have been much more effective in reducing carbon dioxide emissions than RPSs and subsidies to green energy.  I also opine that these same market forces would have driven a decrease in the costs of green technologies whereas the present course of the state RPSs and federal and state subsidies has kept the prices artificially high by effectively discouraging, or at least hampering, the drive to reducing manufacturing costs--I mean why work hard at decreasing manufacturing costs when someone is subsidizing the higher costs.

Forget about political practicality, let's apply real practicality.

More of the Same Isn't Enough

I don't like subsidies and I think a crash effort to push wind and solar without first pushing costs down and preparing the grid is wasteful and inefficient.  California's mad dash to 33% isn't allowing time to sort out how the grid will operate under high penetration levels of renewable energy.  Governor Brown is pushing for 12,000 MW of rooftop solar yet neither he nor his advisors have a clue about how to get it done.

On the other hand, more coal is not the answer.  My beef has little to do with CO2 emissions - having been inside coal-burning power plants that employ a range of technologies on several occasions, I know coal is a dirty, nasty fuel that can't be extracted or burned cleanly enough.  Don't take my word for it thought.  Just fly through the haze around the Four Corners area at 12,000 feet and you'll see for yourself.

NASA put a man on the moon in ten years because they mapped out a plan for identifying and surmounting the many technical hurdles they'd have to overcome.  Several years into a renewable rollout frenzy, we still haven't done that.  We've put in place mandates to use whatever technology is available and made up any shortfalls in cost-effectiveness by throwing taxpayer money at projects.  A better, more sensible approach is to lay out technology roadmaps, then doling out relatively modest amounts of R&D money for projects that solve the technical hurdles, test larger-scale systems and drive down costs.   It's a less expensive path than prematurely relying on manufacturing economies of scale.

As for gas plants, let's just say we may be reaching the point of diminishing returns.  Current gas-fired combined cycle plants operate at conversion efficiencies greater than 50%, and it's not clear how much further efficiencies can be raised without employing materials that will break the bank.

Finding ways to make renewables play well in an electric grid is clearly a sizable challenge.  Just the thing to attract all of the new talent that's going to be needed as those of us who've been in the business for too long finally retire.

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA