Mixture of Sun and Clouds for Obama’s Second Term

Ken Silverstein | Jan 22, 2013


It’s a new day -- and the first one of President Obama’s second term. And while his inaugural address was not intended to draft public policy it was meant to provide the nation a blueprint of what issues he feels deserve attention.

To that end, he clearly stated that dealing with climate change would be a priority and that the development of renewable energy would be one means by which to achieve that aim. During the fall campaign, the president devoted sparse time to such issues that had become hugely contentious. Now, though, with a second term locked up, he is showing renewed signs of confidence.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said on Monday. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science, but one can avoid the impact of raging fires, crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

Last year was the hottest ever recorded in this country. Droughts and wildfires dominated the news over the summer. But it was Hurricane Sandy that pounded the East Coast just before the November election that still resonates. In 2011, 14 major weather events occurred with each costing at least $1 billion.

The president came to office in January 2009 perhaps a bit wide-eyed. His party dominated both congressional chambers, allowing the House to pass a cap-and-trade bill. But that measure would never be able to get the 60 votes necessary to survive a filibuster in the Senate. And then the Democrats lost control of the House in 2010.

Obama did, though, spearhead the passage of greater fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. Still, his goal going forward is more ambitious and involves not just the reduction of greenhouse gases but also those tied to acid rain, soot and mercury. Here, the president has two choices: Using the regulatory levers or winning congressional approval, or some combination of the two.

During his first term, the president allowed his opposition to define clean energy as a dirty term -- fuel sources that could not compete in open markets without government subsidies and without regulatory favors. The failure of solar maker Solyndra, which lost $535 million in federal loans, crystalized that view. 

Research Dollars

Now, however, the president has stopped playing defense, although he realizes that the pursuit of a New Energy Economy will be long and difficult. It’s especially true when the legacy fuels have had decades-long help that have given them the inside track on power and transportation markets, he has said.

“We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries -- we must claim its promise,” the president said during his address.

One way to reach this vision is to increase the amount of federal research and development funds that go into developing cleaner fuels and new technologies. This country now invest $3 to $4 billion annually in “innovation,” says Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank based in Oakland, Calif. He says that this amount ought to be $30 billion a year, given that energy is such a massive segment of the American economy.

That’s money that would not just be plowed into varying stages of wind and solar development but also in nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration, he adds. Consider that the federal government played an integral part in creating “hydraulic fracturing” that is used to extract shale gas from rocks that lay deep underground. Without such a public-private partnership, the shale gas would still be dormant and coal would continue to dominate utility markets.

“Addressing climate change is urgent,” says Shellenberger. “Energy transitions take a long time and we need to get started.”

The political realities are such that legislative action would fail. The president’s opponents are concerned that climate change is the result of naturally occurring weather cycles and that providing subsidies to green energy is both unfair and wasteful. Wind and solar are uncompetitive, they add, not because they are young and untried; rather, it is because they are intermittent and expensive, requiring a base-load fuel such as coal or natural gas to back them up.

Obama is therefore left to depend on further regulatory action and on the allocation of federal funds to develop promising technologies. Most -- but not all -- of the regulatory levers have been pulled, leaving the administration to carry out the rules that have previously been enacted. Common ground exists, however, as both the president and Congress have been pushing promising technologies, and they will continue to provide funding not just to green energy but also to the fossil fuels. 

EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been honored as one of MIN’s Most Intriguing People in Media.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein


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Unsupported information

“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science," Perhaps if President Obama and Energy Biz repeat the phrases enough, it will become the Truth! No need for scientific evidence. The only need is to believe what is repeated, over and over and over. If people hear it every day, at least once, it should suffice for Truth eventually, right? I find this article a very sad commentary that caters to those who feed off energy subsidies.

Ken Reply

Temperatures in the contiguous United States last year were the hottest in more than a century of record-keeping, shattering the mark set in 1998 by a wide margin, the federal government announced Tuesday.

The average temperature in 2012 was 55.3 degrees, one degree above the previous record and 3.2 degrees higher than the 20th-century average, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. They described the data as part of a longer-term trend of hotter, drier and potentially more extreme weather.

The higher temperatures are due in part to cyclical weather patterns, according to the scientists. But the researchers also said the data provided further compelling evidence that human activity — especially the burning of fossil fuels, which produces greenhouse gases — is contributing to changes in the U.S. climate.



Note: Reference is NOAA, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

I appreciate your point but kindly explain what source you have that says the above info is not accurate. You can list it here so that readers can weigh it all. NOAA seems like a reliable source here. But if you have a different one that says something otherwise, list it for us. Our readers are pretty smart.

Climate Change is a waste of time

As fast as we try to limit air pollutants that affect climate, assuming that it does, China and India are moving faster to dirty the air so we make negative progress on climate change. The President has no clue what needs to be done. We should be working on energy independence and creating jobs so the economy starts healing. The entire direction of the President's agenda is wrong-minded on energy and the economy will suffer because of it. Wake up people. We're on a no-win path where energy is concerned.

Strange thing about temperature records

There is one thing I have a bit of difficulty with when folks talk about record high temperatures in the 21st century.  If one goes on the Internet and looks up the extreme temperature records by state, one finds that most were set before 1950, with quite a number being in the 1910's and 1930's.  Of the fifty states, if I remember the table correctly, only 10 were after 1950 and only 1 in the 2000's.  If the base temperature is getting so much hotter, would not the extreme temperature records have changed as well?

Hurricane Sandy was not a hurricane when it crossed the coast.  The impact of Sandy was heightened by combining with a Nor'easter.  In the 1950's, the east coast was clobbered by 5 major hurricanes.  Damages now are more expensive because of a couple of factors:

1)  From the 1970's to the present date, the comparable costs of virtually everything related to buildings has increased dramatically.

2)  The US population along the coasts has increased at a rate 4 times that of inland areas.

3)  The real estate market is way higher than it was in the past.  The first house I bought was a brand new, 3 bedroom, 2 bath brick home and it cost roughly $23,000.  While it was not a fancy place, neither is my present 3 bedroon, 2 bath home with vinyl siding that was $180,000.  It is a matter of inflation and location.  Needless to say, when combined with items 1 and 2, the impact of storm damage in dollar terms is much higher.

As for tornados, well since the US has a lot more people (and cities and towns), a lot faster news reporting, and weather radar since 1900 or even 1950, how many storms never got any attention or were even known about in the first half of the 20th century much less before that.

I am not saying we should do nothing, but let's make it a reasoned approach.

The Solyndra scandal really has not gotten enough attention.  Solyndra's initial application for a loan guarantee was turned down by the Bush administration but the Obama administration rushed the application through, subordinated the taxpayer investment to the private investors, and involved a major bundler of campaign funds for President Obama's campaign.  On top of that is what Solyndra used the money for.  You reckon their variable transparency conference room wall was a cheap feature.

Solyndra was a typical example of political corruption that is unfortunately rampant in both political parties because politicians have the power to just take whatever money they want from the taxpayers to finance their highflying lifestyles, junkets, and nepotism.