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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Turning Rhetoric to Reality?

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute

By Yael Borofsky and Jesse Jenkins

President Barack Obama spoke eloquently to an audience at MIT on Friday about clean energy, innovation, and the American entrepreneurial spirit. Unfortunately, the masterful public speaker was disappointingly vague about supposedly "historic" climate and energy legislation now in front of the Senate; legislation too weak to make reality out of Obama's rhetoric.

In his speech, Obama touted the clean energy investments made by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) as the "largest investment in clean energy in history." He's right. Such investments are a prime example of the kind of proactive public investments that can transform the U.S. energy economy. That transformation is already underway, with these direct public investments expected to double U.S. renewable energy generation in the next three years and put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work in an emerging clean energy sector.

Unfortunately, the President then turns right around, just a few breaths later, and claims "all of this must culminate in the passage of comprehensive legislation that will finally make renewable energy the profitable kind of energy in America."

The irony is hard to miss. The House-passed "American Clean Energy and Security Act" (ACES) and its Senate sibling, the "Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act" (CEJAPA), as they currently stand, will provide a much smaller boost for clean energy than investments already underway in ARRA. Both bills would slash clean energy investments levels to just one third of the over $30 billion per year invested by ARRA, devoting just $10 billion annually to clean energy technology, broadly defined.

ACES and CEJAPA would similarly fail to sustain what Obama accurately dubbed "the largest single boost in scientific research in history" begun by ARRA, investing just about $1 billion annually in the research and development critical to current and future clean energy technology advances, not to mention U.S. economic competitiveness. In fact, R&D investments under Congressional climate bills would not approach the level of investment Obama, himself, advocates on his website --"$150 billion over ten years in energy research and development to transition to a clean energy economy."

Instead of building on the direct investments made by ARRA with tens of billions annually to research, develop, and deploy clean energy technology, support the growth of prosperous American clean energy industries, and create millions of new jobs, the current bill relies heavily on a cap-and-trade system that sends too weak a signal to stimulate a major transformation of the U.S. energy system and a collection of weakened regulations. Thus, policy designed to stimulate economic growth directed significant funding to clean energy, but - and here's the irony - legislation solely dedicated to advancing a clean energy future is clearly inferior.

Perhaps what is most frustrating is that Obama has been getting the clean energy rhetoric right for nearly two years. He has literally carried the clean energy innovation fueled torch that Breakthrough, among others, have long cultivated and advocated, and for that he deserves much credit.

During the campaign and even in the first months of his presidency, this speech would not only have inspired, it would have been a portent of progressive legislation and ensuing clean energy innovation. (see here and here). But today, with real climate and energy legislation on the table, Obama's words are frustratingly hollow.

And yet the implications of this legislation stretch far beyond emissions reductions and energy independence. As Obama astutely points out, a competition to lead the world in clean energy innovation is at hand:

"From China to India, from Japan to Germany, nations everywhere are racing to develop new ways to producing and use energy. The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I am convinced of that. And I want America to be that nation. It's that simple."

If Obama truly wants to realize this goal, it is not obvious considering his engagement with the Congressional climate and energy policy debate to date. Some may be content to write off the clean energy race as handy rhetoric, but the targeted policies and direct investments in clean energy technology employed by Asian nations, like China, Japan, and South Korea, are very real, they are effective, and they do not look anything like the cap-and-trade-focused legislation currently before us.

Currently, the U.S. is poised to let ARRA's truly historic investments in clean energy technology and industries lapse as a one-shot deal, while China, for example, is surging ahead in the clean energy race with plans to build on its $170 billion stimulus investment in clean technology with new investments totaling $440-$660 billion over the next decade.

We still have a chance to meet and exceed the challenge China has posed, but not with the policies advanced by proposed legislation. It is time for Obama to insist that the substance of Congress's climate and energy policy match his rhetorical focus on clean energy innovation, technology and competitiveness, instead of skirting the large-scale commitments needed to achieve our energy and economic goals.

Until he does, the climate policy rhetoric will continue to stand at odds with the underlying policies - and we will not see the same shift in policy that we have witnessed in Obama's rhetoric. At Grist, prolific climate and energy blogger David Roberts ( ) rightfully praises Obama's inspiring narrative but laments that the climate and energy discourse often wavers from it:

" is worth noting that this narrative--the narrative of innovation, American can-do spirit, and global economic competitiveness--is by far the strongest one Dems have going for them. They haven't always been consistent about sticking to that narrative. (If I hear one more reference to the "cap-and-trade bill"...)"

Yet, those who refer to it as the "cap-and trade bill" will continue to do so - and will remain accurate in their descriptions - as long as cap and trade remains at the centerpiece of the bill. Elites and the public, alike, will start referring to it as, say, the "clean energy investment bill" when the content reflects the narrative and direct investment in clean energy technology, innovation, and economic competitiveness is the prioritized policy initiative.

Obama's beautiful but largely empty oration fell on the rapt ears of some of the nation's brightest students and some of the highest hopes for a future economy built on innovative clean energy technology. His conclusion was designed to inspire their efforts:

"This is the nation that has led the world for two centuries in the pursuit of discovery. This is the nation that will lead the clean energy economy of tomorrow, so long as all of us remember what we have achieved in the past and we use that to inspire us to achieve even more in the future."

Yet, the current bill would hinder not expedite their achievements, and its predicted outcomes are far from inspirational.

Right now, Obama has the opportunity to intervene and a narrowing window in which to seize the misdirected climate debate by instructing Congress to deliver legislation that truly validates his vision.

We elected Obama to deliver on his rhetoric, not to deliver more rhetoric. Time is short. Stakes are high. The Senate is crafting the bill that could win or lose the clean energy race. That bill will either turn Obama's rhetoric into reality, or reveal it as nothing more than inspirational speaking. Ultimately this speech leaves us asking Obama: "What's it going to be?"

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