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Listening to a President …

April 10th, 2009 · 1 Comment

One of the struggles of the new Administration is adapting to having a US President who is actually worth listening to, for whom it is worth carving time out to watch and listen to public statements and the impressive number of press conferences/availabilities and town halls. Issues of energy and climate change come up in many of these. Join me after the fold for a selection of items related to energy and climate change from President Obama’s public comments on his recent overseas trip.

2 Apr 09, London, Press Conference after the G20 Conference (White House Blog Post)

As part of a response to a question about America’s role in the world,

But in an era of integration and interdependence, it is also my responsibility to lead America into recognizing that its interests, its fate is tied up with the larger world; that if we neglect or abandon those who are suffering in poverty, that not only are we depriving ourselves of potential opportunities for markets and economic growth, but ultimately that despair may turn to violence that turns on us; that unless we are concerned about the education of all children and not just our children, not only may we be depriving ourselves of the next great scientist who’s going to find the next new energy source that saves the planet, but we also may make people around the world much more vulnerable to anti-American propaganda.

I find it notable that the example used is not “the next great baseball player” (what might W have said…), but a scientist for the “next new energy source that saves the planet”.

Of course, we can’t wait around for the Silver Bullet of “the next new energy source”, but President Obama knows that, which we see through the focus on energy efficiency throughout the Administration.

As part of a response to a Pakistani correspondent about Obama’s conversation with Pakistan’s President

We talked about a whole range of other issues related to, for example, energy, and how important it is for the United States to lead by example in reducing our carbon footprint so that we can help to forge agreements with countries like China and India that, on a per-capita basis, have a much smaller footprint and so justifiably chafe at the idea that they should have to sacrifice their development for our efforts to control climate change; but also acknowledging that if China and India, with their populations, had the same energy usage as the average American, then we would have all melted by now.

And so that was a very interesting conversation that I will be pursuing not just with India, but hopefully with China and with other countries around the world. In some ways our European counterparts have moved more quickly than we have on this issue. But I think even the Europeans have recognized that it’s not easy. It’s even harder during times of economic downturn.

And so we’re going to have to combine the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency with rapid technological advances. And to the extent that in some cases we can get international cooperation and pool our scientific and technical knowledge around things like developing coal sequestration, for example, that can be extremely helpful. Okay?

There is a tremendous amount that I agree with the President on in these comments.

Yet, there are issues perhaps of tenor and tone that can grate. There is an important set of words here recognizing the legitimate tension between those who have developed through a polluting path and those who have yet to ‘develop’ (are ‘developing’). That is great. But, should we be speaking of their having to “sacrifice their development for our efforts to control climate change”? Two issues here: Developing on a clean, energy efficiency path isn’t asking for “sacrifice”. We are hoping others learn from our own errors, our own mistakes, and leap frog past those to something better. Speaking of “sacrifice … development” doesn’t help move us along to that better path forward. And, how are we to read “our” — is this a global “our” or the developed world (or the US). Probably “global” (all humanity), but my first read was otherwise (perhaps simply my misread).

And, “even harder during times of economic downturn” suggests that dealing with climate change is an economic loser. Hmmm … what about energy efficiency (and conservation)? What about Green Jobs? At least in the near terms, smart action on climate change will be a boom … and smart action on climate change will reduce the chance of a bust (catastrophic climate change) in the years to come. This shouldn’t be harder in a downturn, but actually easier as the path to dig out of the downturn while setting the stage for future prosperity.

Townhall, Strasbourg, France, 3 Apr 09

From his prepared comments

And we also know that in the 21st century, security is more complex than military power. This is the generation that must also stop the spread of the pollution that is slowly killing our planet, from shrinking coastlines and devastating storms to widespread misery and famine and drought. The effects of climate change are now in plain sight.

Europe has acted with a seriousness of purpose that this challenge demands. And in the last few months I’m proud to say that America has begun to take unprecedented steps to transform the way that we use energy. We appointed a special envoy to help us lead a global effort to reduce the carbon that we send in the atmosphere.

But we all know that time is running out. And that means that America must do more. Europe must do more. China and India must do more. Rolling back the tide of a warming planet is a responsibility that we have to ourselves, to our children, and all of those who will inherit God’s creation long after we are gone. So let us meet that responsibility together. I am confident that we can meet it. But we have to begin today. (Applause.)

And let us resolve that when future generations look back on ours, they will be able to say that we did our part to make this world more peaceful.

The linkage of climate change to security issues is important.

And, the statement of learning from others and acknowledging that others have acted (even if, yes, inadequately — though compared to the US?).

And speaking to the time urgency …

Much to applaud here.

In response to an “inaudible” (evidently not to the President) question

what I want to be able to do is not only fix the immediate crisis, but, working in partnership with other countries, create a path for sustainable, responsible growth. And I think we can do that. There are a lot of people who benefit from globalization, but there are also people who have been harmed by globalization. Globalization in and of itself can be good, but can also be destructive.

I would like to see us in the United States take the lead on a new approach to energy — because none of the developed countries are going to be able to sustain their growth if we don’t start using energy differently, and the world cannot survive all countries using energy in the same ways that we use it.

I was meeting with the Indian Prime Minister yesterday after the summit — a very good and wise man, Prime Minister Singh — and he was talking about how Indian growth rates have gone up 9 percent every year. They need to grow at that pace in order to bring hundreds of millions of people in their country out of abject poverty, desperate poverty. They have to grow at a rapid pace.

Now, he actually is committed to working towards dealing with the climate change issue, but he made a very simple point, which is a point that I understood before the meeting and all of us should not forget — and that is that you cannot expect poor countries, or relatively poor countries, to be partners with us on climate change if we are not taking the lead, given that our carbon footprint is many times more than theirs per capita. I mean, each one of us in the developed world, I don’t care how environmentally conscious you are, how green you are — I’m sure there are some green folks here –

Q Yes!

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yes! I don’t care how green you are, you are — you have a much bigger carbon footprint than the average Indian, or the average person from China. And so we in developed countries then — it’s critical for us to lead by example by becoming more energy efficient, and we also have to harness technology and shared scientific breakthroughs in order to find more sustainable energy patterns.

This is an important statement about balanced responsibilities and the importance of leading … “What about China?” Well, Americans pollute far more per capita. Changing our path will enable us to have a far stronger bully pulpit in helping them change theirs. (And, well, being Energy Smart is also economically smart … they are acting toward renewables and energy efficiency to gain competitive edge, they might not require nudging.)

We also know that the pollution from cars in Boston or from factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, and that that will disrupt weather patterns everywhere. The terrorists who struck in London, in New York, plotted in distant caves and simple apartments much closer to your home. And the reckless speculation of bankers that has new fueled a global economic downturn that’s inflicting pain on workers and families is happening everywhere all across the globe. The economic crisis has proven the fact of our interdependence in the most visible way yet.

The linkages, globally, of our actions and threats.

A question from a French-American student

Q Thank you. Do you think that the economic crisis is an opportunity to restructure our industries in an ecological and sustainable way?

President Obama: I do think that in crisis there’s always opportunity if it’s used properly. So, for example, in the United States we decided to
pass a large stimulus package to help growth at a time when the private sector was having a very difficult time.

Now, we could have just spent the money on the same old ways of doing things, but part of what we’ve decided was, if we’re going to be spending a lot of government money anyway, why not spend it to double the amount of renewable energy? Why not spend it on retrofitting existing government buildings so that we drastically reduce their energy consumption? Why not start building high-speed rail?

One thing that, as an American who is proud as anybody of my country, I am always jealous about European trains. And I said to myself, why can’t we have — (applause) — why can’t we have high-speech rail? And so we’re investing in that as well.

So on the transportation front, on — with respect to building construction, on a whole range of issues, we are investing in new technologies that will make us more energy efficient. And that is one of the building blocks that’s needed in order for us to reduce our carbon footprint and to work with other countries to achieve the climate change goals that I think are going to be so important.

Rail enthusiasts should be happy with that line.

By the way, the rail line is a wonderful example of Obama tipping his hat to the United States being in a position to learn from others, that America isn’t #1 in everything.

Speech, Prague, 5 April 2009

Remember that The Czech Republic’s President is a vitriolic global warming denier, even while the country holds the EU Presidency …

Now, to protect our planet, now is the time to change the way that we
use energy. (Applause.) Together, we must confront climate change by ending the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, by tapping the power of new sources of energy like the wind and sun, and calling upon all nations to do their part. And I pledge to you that in this global effort, the United States is now ready to lead. (Applause.)

Again, I like seeing this in front of the most vitriolic global warming denier in a senior position in European politics.

we should build a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, so that countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risks of proliferation. That must be the right of every nation that renounces nuclear weapons, especially developing countries embarking on peaceful programs. And no approach will succeed if it’s based on the denial of rights to nations that play by the rules. We must harness the power of nuclear energy on behalf of our efforts to combat climate change, and to advance peace opportunity for all people.

There are many here who would vitriolically disagree with this in terms of opposing all nuclear power, no matter what.

There are many who question whether nuclear power can cost-effectively compete, on a level playing field, with other options.

And, there are those who think that the President understates the role of nuclear power in these words.

[On my part, having been on the record with this, I see no sensibility to retiring nuclear power and that we should have (at a minimum) a modest expansion of nuclear power as part of a comprehensive strategy for eliminating coal-fired electricity from the energy system in the next twenty years. ... Flame away at me ...]

Istanbul, Student Roundtable, 7 April 09

Q I’m from the university. I want to ask some questions about climate issue. Yesterday you said that peace in home and peace in world, but to my opinion, firstly the peace should be in nature. For this reason, I wonder that when the USA will sign the Kyoto Protocol.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, it’s an excellent question.

As many of you know, I think the science tells us that the planet is getting warmer because of carbon gases that are being sent into the atmosphere. And if we do not take steps soon to deal with it, then you could see an increase of three, four, five degrees, which would have a devastating effect – the oceans would rise; we don’t know what would happen to the beauty of Istanbul if suddenly the seas rise. Changing weather patterns would create extraordinary drought in some regions, floods in others. It could have a devastating effect on human civilization. So we’ve got to take steps to deal with this.

“I think …” How about ‘the best scientific research / evidence tells us that …’ At least it wasn’t put into a “belief” framing.

When the Kyoto Protocol was put forward, the United States opted out of it, as did China and some other countries — and I think that was a mistake, particularly because the United States and — is the biggest carbon — has been the biggest carbon producer. China is now becoming the biggest carbon producer because its population is so large. And so we need to bring an international agreement together very soon.

I find this interesting, that Obama called not ratifying Kyoto a mistake. He is not, however, calling for doing so now.

It doesn’t make sense for the United States to sign Kyoto because Kyoto is about to end. So instead what my administration is doing is preparing for the next round, which is — there will be discussions in Copenhagen at the end of this year. And what we want to do is to prepare an agenda both in the United States and work internationally so that we can start making progress on these issues.

Now, there are a number of elements. Number one, we have to be more energy efficient. And so all countries around the world should be sharing technology and information about how we can reduce the usage of electricity, and how we can make our transportation more efficient, make our cars get better gas mileage. Reducing the amount of energy we use is absolutely critical.

Spot on.

We should also think about are there ways that if we’re using fossil fuels — oil, coal, other fossil fuels — are there ways of capturing or reducing the carbon emissions that come from them?

Okay …

So this is going to be a big, big project and a very difficult one and a very costly one. And I don’t want to — I don’t want to lie to you: I think the politics of this in every country is going to be difficult, because if you suddenly say to people, you have to change your factory to make it more energy efficient — well, that costs the factory owner money. If you say to a power plant, you have to produce energy in a different way, and that costs them money, then they want to pass that cost on to consumers, which means everybody’s electricity prices go up — and that is something that is not very popular.

Big time framing issues here.

It “costs the factory owner money … to make it more energy efficient”? Well, yes, at the purchase price. But, not in operating costs. President Obama, you need to speak more to explaining how we need to think about what it costs to own/operate, rather than buy, something. Whether that something is a lightbulb, a house, a car, or a factory. In all of these, there are tremendous opportunities for being more energy efficient on a profitable basis.

And, “everybody’s electricity prices go up” deals with the unit costs of electricity. Again, framing and educational issue. Marry the ‘energy efficiency’ with ‘unit prices going up’: If we’re doing things right, while kilowatt hour costs might go up, we’ll be cutting total energy demand by even more, thus the cost of ‘energy services’ (the cost of cooling that beer you want on a hot summer night) will go down. In the US, at least, we have a huge (HUGE) reservoir of ‘negawatts’ to mine even if (when) the economy booms again.

So there are going to be big political struggles in every country to try to ratify an agreement on these issues. And that’s why it’s going to be so important that young people like yourself who will be suffering the consequences if we don’t do something, that you are active politically in making sure that politicians in every country are responsive to these issues and that we educate the public more than we have so far.

True …

Thank you, Mr President …

And, time to take this to the United States.

In the House, the Waxman-Markey bill is going into hearings. It is far from a perfect bill (pretty good on energy and energy efficiency, in the ‘needs improvement’ zone in its climate change section: see Carpe Diem: Waxman-Markey a Start, But More Opportunities to Seize), but your representatives need to hear from you that you want action on climate change, that you want to see serious movement on energy, that energy efficiency matters to you. Call, write, meet with your Representatives to urge them to strengthen the Waxman-Markey bill, that this is an issue of top-tier importance and you expect them to act on it.

ACTION: Join 1Sky and Focus The Nation in meeting with Representatives in April.

Tags: Energy · Obama Administration · barack obama · climate change

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  • 1 Paying attention to “friends” // Apr 14, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    [...] legislation. Obama Administration appointments. Statements from Administration officials, and the President himself. Achievements (and problems) with changing policies. New (and old) technologies and approaches to [...]

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