President Barack Obama — in an effort to cover as many bases as possible in not only cementing his legacy, but also in trying to maintain attention on a crucial issue — published an article in Science magazine on Monday, entitled “The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy.” He is the first U.S. president to pen an article for the peer-reviewed magazine.
Written with full awareness of his successor’s intentions, the president clearly takes the long view in framing the issue when he says: “The latest science and economics provide a helpful guide for what the future may bring, in many cases independent of near-term policy choices, when it comes to combatting climate change and transitioning to a clean-energy economy.”
Rather than the typical scientific paper usually published in Science, this piece — published under the Policy Forum heading — could be read as an open letter to president-elect Donald Trump. Perhaps it’s also a precautionary measure, to put as much factual information on the subject as possible into print, when faced with the prospect of a fact-defying regime taking charge.
For those of us who follow the issue, the president is clearly using his bully pulpit here to make it clear to one and all that this is an issue he, along with virtually the entire scientific community, considers both important and urgent.
At a time when Donald Trump’s appointee for secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, is telling the Senate confirmation panel, “I don’t see [climate change] as the imminent national security threat as others do,” it’s clear that Obama is making a pre-emptive strike against efforts by the new administration to turn the focus away.
1. “Decoupling” energy consumption and carbon emissions from economic growth
For decades, energy consumption — which, until recently, went hand-in-hand with carbon emissions — correlated strongly with economic growth. As economies grew, they used more energy. It seemed almost a law of nature. But correlation is not causation, as the well-known statistics mantra reminds us.
First, as energy-efficiency measures are put in place, more work gets done with less energy — and economic growth can and does occur. Secondly, as our energy supply becomes increasingly decarbonized, the energy that is used emits less carbon than before.
The bottom line is that while the economy grew by more than 10 percent during the Obama years, both energy consumption and carbon emissions fell. In fact, carbon emissions per dollar of GDP fell by a total of 18 percent.
2. Voluntary business action on climate
The president gave a shout-out to the business community for the actions they are taking — in most cases voluntarily — to reduce emissions, adding that doing so can “boost bottom lines, cut costs for consumers, and deliver returns for shareholders.”
He mentions the aggressive targets taken by General Motors (a 20 percent cut in emissions by 2020 with a 2011 baseline) and Alcoa (30 percent by 2020, 2005 baseline). And he says the efficiency standards his administration put in place for motor vehicles and appliances will eliminate a combined 10 billion tons of emissions by 2030.
And, according to the DOE, twice as many people are employed in the energy-efficiency industry than in the production of fossil fuels and their use for electric power generation, Obama points out.
3. Shifts in the electric power sector
He focused specifically on the electric power sector, our nation’s largest source of greenhouse emissions. Dramatic shifts in this sector include both the shift from coal to natural gas — which grew from 21 percent of energy market share to 33 percent since 2008 — and the precipitous drop in solar and wind prices.
He mentions two very different companies, Google and Walmart, both of which plan to purchase 100 percent of their power from renewable sources in the near term. He closes this section by noting that twice as many Americans work in the renewables industry as in coal.
4. Global momentum
Many countries are taking aggressive action on climate, to their own benefit as well as the benefit of all.
Emphasizing the need for prompt and substantive action, the president acknowledges that his successor can set his own policy. However, he warns that “were the United States to step away from [the Paris climate agreement], it would lose its seat at the table to hold other countries to their commitments, demand transparency, and encourage ambition.”
“This should not be a partisan issue.”
“This should not be a partisan issue,” Obama insists. “It is good business and good economics to lead a technological revolution and define market trends.
“And it is smart planning to set long-term emission-reduction targets and give American companies, entrepreneurs, and investors certainty so they can invest and manufacture the emission-reducing technologies that we can use domestically and export to the rest of the world.”
Indeed, given China’s recent announcement that it plans to invest 1 trillion yuan ($361 billion) in renewable technology, there can be no question the U.S. could be forced to relinquish our leadership role — and import even more good s from China in the form of renewable technology — in the years ahead.
In closing, President Obama tells us that he remains “convinced that no country is better suited to confront the climate challenge and reap the economic benefits of a low-carbon future than the United States.”
He goes on to say: “.. [C]ontinued participation in the Paris process will yield great benefit for the American people, as well as the international community. Prudent U.S. policy over the next several decades would prioritize, among other actions, decarbonizing the U.S. energy system, storing carbon and reducing emissions within U.S. lands, and reducing non-CO2 emissions.”
Image credit: Flickr/United Nations Photo