Is Obama Serious About Climate Change Action?

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

President Obama speaking recently at the Solar Panel Field at the Copper Mountain Solar 1 Facility in Boulder City, Nevada, the largest photovoltaic plant operating in the country.


(By Josh Marks, cross-posted at Green Forward)

When it comes to climate change action, the Obama Administration is feeling the heat. Literally. All the president needs to do is step outside the White House doors and spend some time in the Rose Garden to feel Washington’s warmest winter on record. And cities across the United States have been experiencing record high temperatures this winter. Obama’s campaign headquarters is in Chicago, where the Windy City last Wednesday hit a high of 87 degrees Fahrenheit. The next day the temperature at O’Hare Airport was 83 degrees, capping nine straight days of record-breaking or record-tying high temperatures in Chicago.

While there is a difference between daily weather changes and climate patterns over time, the “summer in March” has climatologists concerned. “Global warming boosts the probability of really extreme events, like the recent U.S. heat wave, far more than it boosts more moderate events,” climate scientists Stefan Rahmstorf and Dim Coumou wrote recently in the RealClimate blog.

But is President Obama concerned?

Progressives have been pressing President Obama to take more forceful action to reduce carbon emissions and explain to the American people the reality of man-made global warming and the clean energy and energy efficient solutions to counter climate change.

The Obama Administration appears to have made a political calculation that it would be unwise right now to rally the American people behind bold climate change action. He has disappointed progressives by calling for an “all of the above” energy strategy and then staging events like last week in Oklahoma where he announced he is fast-tracking an oil pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. And last summer there was the broken promise that the Department of Energy would install solar panels and a solar water heater on the roof of the White House. It appears this was another political calculation in the wake of the Solyndra witch hunt from Congressional Republicans.

But while standing in front of oil rigs and installing White House solar panels make for nice political theater and photo ops, there are encouraging signs that this administration is taking aggressive action behind the scenes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are two actions the Obama Administration has taken that will play a substantial role in transforming the United States into a low carbon economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The first is the historic gas mileage standards that will nearly double the fuel economy of vehicles by 2025, when cars and light trucks will get nearly 55 miles per gallon. Thirteen major automakers signed onto the deal that will significantly reduce carbon emissions with more fuel efficient, hybrid, electric and alternative fuel vehicles. Cars and trucks account for 20 percent of carbon emissions.

The second significant decision was yesterday’s Environmental Protection Agency rules to limit carbon pollution from new power plants. For the first time, new power plants will be required to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity produced. The ruling effectively kills any new coal-fired power plants.

These two actions to reduce carbon emissions are remarkable considering the United States has still not joined the 191 other countries that have signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol and are thus not obligated by the international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So these climate change actions have come internally from the Obama Administration.

The hope is that if Obama is elected to a second term that he will take more aggressive action on climate change and be able to have a real conversation with the American public about the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and deal with climate change. Kari Marie Norgaard, professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, said recently at a Planet Under Pressure news conference in London that “cultural inertia” is slowing down climate action.

“We find a profound misfit between dire scientific predictions of ongoing and future climate changes and scientific assessments of needed emissions reductions on the one hand, and weak political, social or policy response on the other,” Norgaard said. ”Climate change poses a massive threat to our present social, economic and political order. From a sociological perspective, resistance to change is to be expected. People are individually and collectively habituated to the ways we act and think. This habituation must be recognized and simultaneously addressed at the individual, cultural and societal level — how we think the world works and how we think it should work.”

If Obama is not re-elected, the future of the planet is most certainly in peril. Leading Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said this about man-made global warming last October:

“My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.”

Honoring Gabrielle Giffords by Embracing the Green Economy

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

(By Josh Marks, cross-posted at Green Forward)

When it comes to the green economy, sometimes it seems like the United States of America is stuck in neutral while the rest of the world is fully charged up and racing ahead at warp speed.

Take electric vehicles as an example pulled from recent headlines. The Chevy Volt, General Motors’ new plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, recently became a political punching bag on Capitol Hill by a Republican-led Oversight Committee on a witch hunt against any project related to the Obama administration. Before it was Solyndra and solar energy, now it is the Volt and electric vehicles.

Lack of political will from Republican lawmakers in Congress is really the only thing that is holding back the United States of America from leading the “next industrial revolution”—the clean energy economy that is already rapidly transforming countries like Germany, China, Brazil, Canada and other governments that get it when it comes to giving the market signals with cap and trade programs and taxes on carbon. The fossil fuel industry seems to have the Republicans on too tight a leash for them to make decisions on behalf of the American people and the future of this great country.

Perhaps Gabrielle Giffords can provide some inspiration and convince at least some of the Republican lawmakers in Congress (the Obama administration and most Democrats are already onboard the high-speed clean energy train) that they must break the shackles of the oil, gas and coal industries and begin to embrace renewable power sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, biomass, biofuel, tidal and wave.

Giffords is a big advocate for solar energy because her home state of Arizona is blessed by the sun. She has supported clean energy legislation as well as ending oil industry subsidies and redirecting that money into clean energy research.

When Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) read Giffords’ letter of resignation on the House floor on January 25, she said the following:

“In public service, I found a venue for the pursuit of a stronger America by ensuring the safety and security of all Americans by producing clean energy here at home instead of importing oil from abroad.”

Here is video of the entire speech.

Nuclear Power – Not a Good Option for Avoiding Climate Change

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Along with much of the rest of the world, we here at Winning Progressive have been closely following the horrible events in Japan, both in terms of the clean up and rescue operations responding to the earthquakes and tsunami that hit Japan on Friday, and the serious emergency at the Fukushima Daiishi Nuclear Power Station.  One good source of keeping up to date on what is happening is this regularly updated post at Mother Jones’ Blue Marble blog.

The nuclear emergency in Japan has reignited the debate over the safety of nuclear power, with critics raising the spectre of a total nuclear meltdown and reminding folks of Chernobyl, while the nuclear industry and its supporters are engaging in a public relations pushback that notes that relatively few people have died from nuclear power over its fifty year life, and claims that Americans should be “reassured” by the emergency at Fukushima because the industry will be able to learn from what went wrong and avoid similar mistakes in the future.

One of the biggest arguments that supporters of nuclear energy put forth is the claim that increased use of nuclear power could help avoid catastrophic climate change as nuclear power plants do not release greenhouse gases.  Even leaving aside the direct safety issues illustrated by the Fukushima emergency, however, nuclear power is not a good option for avoiding climate change for a number of reasons.

* Too Many Nuclear Plants Are Needed: The sheer number of nuclear power plants that would need to be built to have a major dent in the world’s CO2 emissions is staggering. The 442 nuclear reactors that currently exist worldwide provide about 15% of the world’s power. To increase that amount to even 50% of the world’s current power demand would require the construction of at least 900 new nuclear reactors, a figure that would be considerably higher once you factor in growing electricity demand and the replacement of existing aging reactors that are aging.  In other words, we would have to more than triple the number of nuclear power plants in the world just to meet 50% of our electricity needs.  This would also mean tripling the amount of nuclear material floating around that could fall into the wrong hands, the amount of radioactive waste that we would need to figure out how to store, the number of targets for terrorist attacks, and the chances of a catastrophic accident.

* Nuclear Plants Cost Too Much: While the nuclear industry once sold itself as being able to produce power that is “too cheap to meter,” this claim is somewhat accurate only if you ignore the substantial costs of building such plants, storing the waste that is created, and cleaning up any accidents that occur.  A study from 2008 estimated that it would cost between $6 and $9 billion to build an average size nuclear plant of 1,100 megawatts, and the cost has likely escalated since then with an engineering firm recently bidding $26 billion to build two 1,200 megawatt nuclear units in Canada.  These significant costs are a big reason why the industry is trying to get Congress to require massive taxpayer subsidies for the industry.  For example, here in the US President Obama, unfortunately, proposed $54 billion in loan guarantees in an effort to get 10 more nuclear plants built. The hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars (much of it subsidized by taxpayers) that would be needed to achieve a major expansion in nuclear power is money that would be far better spent ramping up energy efficiency, which is the cheapest form of power, and developing and implementing safer renewable power sources, such as wind, solar, and geothermal, and the battery technology needed to make such sources fully viable.  Every dollar spent on nuclear power is a dollar that could more effectively reduce climate pollution by being spent on a cleaner, cheaper energy source.

* Nuclear Plants Take Too Long – We need solutions for climate change now. Yet it takes nearly ten years to get a new nuclear plant permitted, constructed, and operating.  Given the urgency of climate change, we should be investing in quicker solutions like energy efficiency.

* Regulatory Failure Presents a Serious Concern – There are serious concerns about whether adequate regulatory structures would exist to ramp up nuclear power worldwide.  Here in the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a regulatory agency that has a checkered past and, of course, all forms of regulation are under attack by conservatives.  In addition, for nuclear power to play a major role in reducing climate change, it would need to expand into numerous other countries, many of which lack well-functioning governments that could adequately oversee both the plants and the nuclear materials needed to fuel the plants.

* We Don’t Need Nuclear Power – Supporters of nuclear power often try to put opponents into a false choice of either going with nuclear or burning more coal.  But the reality is that there are plenty of options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions more quickly, effectively, and cheaply than through increased nuclear power.   In particular, there are substantial amounts of untapped energy efficiency potential – a 2009 study by McKinsey & Company found that we could reduce overall energy consumption in the U.S. by 23% per year by 2020, at a cost savings of $1.2 trillion, by investing $520 billion in energy efficiency.  In addition, wind, concentrated solar and passive solar, geothermal, run-of-the-river hydroelectric, and other forms of renewable energy are rapidly becoming commercially available and cost-competitive.  Development of energy storage technologies will allow such renewable resources to make even bigger contributions to our energy system over the coming decades.  Finally, to the extent that additional baseload power sources are needed, combined cycle plants fueled by landfill gas, gasified sewage sludge or municipal solid waste, and/or natural gas are all better options than coal or nuclear.  While natural gas has serious problems that must be addressed, mainly related to the hydrofracking used to obtain natural gas from Marcellus shale and a lack of regulatory oversight, natural gas burns far more cleanly, does not create the waste problems of coal or nuclear, and requires a far smaller capital investment which means it will be easier to transition away from it as renewable energy continues to develop.

In short, the tripling or more of current nuclear capacity needed to make a major dent in climate change would be costly, slow, and risky, and would divert resources from developing true cleaner energy technologies that can address climate change without creating massive new problems of their own.  The ongoing events at the Fukushima Plant simply confirm what has already been obvious – that nuclear power is not the way to go.

If you’d like to make your voice heard on nuclear power, contact your Senators and Congressperson,  or write a letter to your local newspaper editor.  Here are links for submitting letters to the editor for national papers, and to newspapers in Colorado, Connecticut, DelawareIllinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

And, as always, if you have any feedback on this post, let us know at Winning Progressive’s Facebook page.

Weekend Reading List

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

For this week’s reading list, we have articles on the latest unemployment numbers, eliminating subsidies for the energy industry, the impact of money on politics in Chicago, the causes of poverty, and an report from a person who attended the pro-labor rallies in Madison.

If you have any feedback on the articles below, or would like to recommend something for next weekend’s reading list, let us know at the Winning Progressive Facebook page.

Statement on February Unemployment Report – Statement of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities about the February unemployment report, which showed 12 straight months of economic growth, but also continued high levels of unemployment.

Get The Energy Sector Off the Dole – Jeffrey Leonard’s article in the Washington Monthly about how eliminating the approximately $20 billion in annual subsidies to the energy industry – the vast majority of which goes to coal, oil, and ethanol – would reduce the deficit, improve the environment, and help level the playing field for renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

The Collapse – Ramsin Cannon’s article at Gaper’s Block about how the election of Rahm Emanuel as Mayor represents the virtual completion of the replacement of the old machine politics with a new approach focused on large campaign contributions, selling off of assets, and introduction of profit seekers into our schools.

Poor Reason – an essay by Stephen Steinberg about how poverty is a structural, political, and historical phenomenon, rather than a cultural one.

Report From Wisconsin: This is What Democracy Looks Like – a report by Harvey J. Kaye at New Deal 2.0 about his experience attending the pro-labor rallies at the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison.