The Clean Energy New Deal

A CLEAN ENERGY future IS inevitable. We have a limited supply of fossil fuels, especially oil. Our burning of fossil fuels is destroying a livable climate.

The two key questions are, first, will we voluntarily give up fossil fuels in the next couple of decades, rather than being forced to do so helter-skelter after it is too late to stop the catastrophe? Second, when we do give them up, will the United States be a global leader in creating jobs and exports in clean energy technologies or will we be importing them from Europe, Japan, and the likely clean energy leader in our absence, China.

For more than a quarter century, conservatives have blocked or scaled back efforts by progressives to spend more on clean energy development and deployment. As a result, while we lead the world in virtually every type of clean energy through the early 1980s, now we are playing catch up across the board, even in technologies that we invented, like the solar cell and the efficient lightbulb.

At last we have a president and Congress who get clean energy and global warming. The 2009 economic stimulus bill alone injected nearly $100 billion in federal cleantech investment, which was matched by another $100 billion in private investment. So much has happened in the last year that— though it is not yet enough to avert catastrophe—we can barely comprehend how dramatic a shift it represents.

The Green FDR: Obama's First 100 Days Make— and May Remake—History

April 26, 2009

The media just keeps missing—or messing up—the story of the century.

Future historians will inevitably judge all twenty-first-century presidents on just two issues: global warming and the clean energy transition. If the world doesn't stop catastrophic climate change then all presidents, indeed, all of us, will be seen as failures and rightfully so.

How else could future generations judge us if the United States and the world stay anywhere near our current emissions path, warm most of the inland United States 9°F or more by century's end, with sea levels 4 to 6 feet higher, rising perhaps a half an inch or more a year, with the Southwest from Kansas to California a permanent dust bowl, and much of the ocean a hot, acidic dead zone? These impacts could be irreversible for hundreds of years if we don't reverse emissions soon and sharply. This will require an unbroken—and indeed escalating—response by our political leadership throughout this century. The same is true for the very important, but still secondary, issue of avoiding the worst impacts of peak oil.

In that sense, what team Obama has accomplished in its first 100 days is nothing less than an unprecedented reversal of decades of unsustainable national policy forced down the throat of the American public by conservatives. While I will present a longer list later in this section— and welcome your additions—three game-changing accomplishments stand out:

1) Green Stimulus: Progressives, Obama keep promise to jumpstart clean energy, economy—conservatives keep promise to jumpstop the future

2) Sustainable Budget: The first sustainable budget in U.S. history.

3) Regulatory breakthrough: EPA finds carbon pollution a serious danger to Americans' health and welfare requiring regulation.

Obama has clearly demonstrated he has a serious chance to be the first president since FDR to remake the country through his positive vision. Indeed, if Obama is a two-term president, if he achieves even half of what he has set out to, he will likely be remembered as "the green FDR."

As an interesting side note, President Reagan, who is held in some esteem with historians these days, will almost certainly be relegated to a second-tier, if not third-tier, president by the painful dual realities of global warming and peak oil. After all, it was Ronald Reagan who put conservatives strongly and permanently on the pro-pollution, anti-efficiency, anti-clean-energy side, where they remain today. It is Reagan, more than anyone else, who put the GOP on the self-destructively wrong side of scientific reality (though Newt Gingrich is a close second).

Since the establishment media doesn't get global warming—seeing it mostly through the lens of their standard drama- and personality-driven coverage focused on the ephemeral (whether Obama "blinks" on earmarks, or Newt Gingrich faces off vs. Al Gore )—and since establishment historians almost by definition focus on the past, the overwhelming majority of "first 100 days" articles you will read are irrelevant exercises in navelgazing. I won't even bother linking to or debunking the spate of stories in today's New York Times or Washington Post Sunday sections.

These myopic stories all befit an industry so shortsighted it couldn't even understand the implications for its own future of the Internet revolution it was reporting on. As but one of many painful examples, here is Joe Klein writing in the normally green-savvy Time, "Sizing Up Obama's First 100 Days":

The fate of Obama's first year in office, if not his Administration, will probably be determined by the way he handles four distinct challenges— two in foreign policy and two domestically...

And that's the second domestic challenge: the realization that Congress will not give Obama everything he wants. Aides say the President's moments of frustration almost always have to do with Congress. "We know that not every wagon makes it across the frontier," says a top Obama adviser. "But we're not willing to decide yet which wagons are going to make it and which aren't." In fact, that decision seems more and more apparent: Congress is unlikely to pass the linchpin of Obama's alternative-energy initiative—a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions to combat global warming and tilt the market toward energy independence but that would also raise energy prices in the midst of a recession.

"The wagon that needs to get through is health care," says a second Obama adviser, picking up the metaphor.

Note the utter lack of knowledge or interest in the substance of the global warming problem. Note the backward view of the core issue: Cap-and-trade is not the linchpin of Obama's alternative energy initiative—it is alternative energy that is the linchpin of Obama's effort to avert catastrophic global warming.

Note that Klein, another status-quo establishment journalist like David Broder and Evan Thomas, parrots the standard conservative talking point that Obama wants to "raise energy prices in the midst of a recession," when the cap doesn't even kick in until 2012, and hardly bites for another five years after that. Seriously guys, can you think for yourselves?

Note the selective quoting meant to imply that Obama is ready to throw cap-and-trade overboard to save health care, when anybody who actually listens to any of Obama's major speeches would know how nonsensical that view is. For instance, in a big April 14 speech focused on the economy, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to a clean energy economy and strong climate bill: "The only way to truly spark this transformation is through a gradual, market-based cap on carbon pollution"

Obama gets global warming. The media doesn't.

Anyway, let's move from the out-of-touch chattering class to a class in green leadership. How has Obama jumpstarted the one true task of every U.S. president of the twenty-first century—preserving the health and welfare of the next 100 billion people to walk the Earth?

Here is a partial list of what Obama has achieved in his first 100 days, laying the groundwork for him becoming the Green FDR:

1) Obama began the process of blocking the vast majority of new coal plants. The EPA has reversed the Bush EPA's effort to ignore the Supreme Court decision that determined carbon dioxide was a pollutant (and hence that CO2 emissions from new coal-fired power plants needed regulating) and initiated the process of regulating greenhouse gases for the first time in U.S. history.

2) He began the process of dramatically increasing the efficiency of our vehicles, by ordering EPA to quickly give California and a dozen other states the right to put in place tough emissions requirements for tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases—and by ordering the Department of Transportation to quickly issue and phase-in tougher fuel economy standards to comply with the 2007 Energy Bill, the first overhaul of the nation's fuel efficiency standards in more than three decades.

3) He appointed a first-rate cabinet and then unleashed them to start inconvenient-truth telling to the public after eight years of administration denial and muzzling of U.S. scientists (Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said "Wake up ... we're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California," and "This is a real economic disaster in the making for our children, for your children").

4) In every single major speech, he has focused on the urgent need for the clean energy transition, for a price for carbon (cap-and-trade and "closing the carbon loophole"), and the unsustainability of our current economic system (Obama gets that our economy has been a Ponzi scheme: "The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.")

5) He signed into law the tax credits needed to achieve his ambitious goal of 1 million plug-in hybrids by 2015—the key alternative fuel vehicle strategy needed to avert the worst consequences of three decades of successful conservative efforts to stop this country from dealing with the energy/economic security threat of rising dependence on imported oil and the inevitably grim impacts of peak oil. He also enacted into law $2 billion in grants and loans for R&D into advanced vehicle batteries, a tenfold increase over current funding. Plug-ins and electric cars, of course, are a core climate solution, since electric drives are more efficient, easily powered by carbon-free energy and indeed far cheaper to operate per mile than gasoline, even when running on renewable power. In the longer term, plug-ins and electric cars can also help enable the full renewable revolution.

6) He signed into law a massive investment in mass transit and train travel—and laid out an aggressive vision for a high-speed rail network. The 70 percent boost in funding is a crucial effort needed to prepare this country for a time when air travel simply becomes too expensive for most people (and then a slightly later time when air travel is seen as simply too destructive of a livable climate)—a time not very far away—one that the vast majority of readers of this blog will live to see.

7) He signed into law the tax credits needed to meet his ambitious goal of doubling renewables in his first term.

8) He signed into law the funding needed to jumpstart a twenty-first-century smart grid that is critical to enable the renewable energy, energy efficiency, and plug-in hybrid revolution. He also made what maybe his most important appointment, Jon Wellinghoff for Energy Commission Chief, who understands we may not ever need another new coal or nuclear plant and who has already begun jumpstarting the new, green grid.

9) He signed into law the single biggest investment in the deployment of energy-efficient technology in U.S. history, along with strong incentives for state governments to fix their inefficiency-promoting utility regulations.

10) For the first time in three decades, he more than doubled the annual budget for advanced energy efficiency, renewable energy, and low-carbon technology after Reagan slashed federal efficiency and renewables investments 80 percent to 90 percent, which launched decades of vehement ideological opposition to clean tech by even so-called moderate and maverick conservatives.

11) He put forward the first sustainable budget in U.S. history, one that invests in clean energy, included cap-and-trade revenue, and seeks repeal of fossil industry subsidies. Yes, he made a serious tactical mistake by tentatively pursuing the possibility of trying to pass a climate bill through reconciliation, which allowed conservatives to score some meaningless tactical political victories and thereby confuse the media into thinking Obama was himself not serious about this issue. In fact his budget and everything he has done as president shows the reverse is true, that he understands the fate of his presidency and the health and well-being of the American public rests on his success in passing serious energy and climate legislation.

Years from now, this may well be remembered as the time that progressives, led by Obama, began the climate-saving transition to a sustainable low-carbon economy built around green jobs.

Of course, it's entirely possible that this history-making first 100 days won't remake history. It's more than possible that we won't stop catastrophic warming. But if we don't stop the hundreds of years of misery, of Hell and high water, that will almost certainly be because the conservative movement threw their entire weight behind humanity's self-destruction (see chapters 7,8, and 9)—because conservatives in both chambers refuse to conserve anything, including a livable climate, and willingly sacrificed the health and well-being of the next fifty generations of Americans for their ideology.

But even if we fail to stop the catastrophe, there is no escape from Americans, indeed, all humans, ultimately having a low-carbon, low-oil, low-water, low-natural-capital lifestyle. And thus the vast majority of Obama's initiatives will be recognized by future generations and future historians as the point at which the U.S. government embraced the inevitable and started down the sustainable path that presidents either chose to embrace voluntarily in time to avoid the worst impacts or were forced to embrace by the collapse of the global Ponzi scheme.

Obama is the first president in history to articulate both the why and how of the sustainable vision—and to actively, indeed aggressively, pursue its enactment. And that is why he is likely to be remembered as the green FDR.

Have China and the United States Been Holding Talks Aimed at a Climate Deal This Fall?

May 19, 2009

For those of us who believe that maintaining a livable climate pretty much depends on a U.S.-China deal on greenhouse gas emissions, the Guardian's story Monday was a bombshell:

China and United States Held Secret Talks on Climate Change Deal

Negotiations began in final months of Bush administration

• Obama could seal the accord on cutting emissions by autumn

But was the story true? Turns out I know one of the key players:

"My sense is that we are now working towards something in the fall," said Bill Chandler, director of the energy and climate programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the driving force behind the talks. "It will be serious. It will be substantive, and it will happen."

I've known Bill since my DOE days, so I called him to get the scoop. He says the story is mostly true—and thus a true potential breakthrough that may well lead to a major announcement in the fall—but it has inaccuracies, including the nature of the deal being discussed. Let me try to separate fact from hype and examine what China might be willing to commit to (assuming we makes serious commitments, too, a la Waxman-Markey).

Bill explained that the talks were not secret, but were merely off the record. Indeed, Carnegie had written about the talks back in March.

The Guardian is correct that "The first communications, in the autumn of 2007, were initiated by the Chinese. Xie Zhenhua, the vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country's central economic planning body." The Guardian puffs up the role of the Bushies in this talk, but in fact these talks were designed to get around the Bush administration intransigence on the issue.

Bill told me that Minister Xie "said that the Chinese government took the science of climate change seriously" and wanted help figuring out who they should talk to given the pending U.S. election and the fact that the "Bush administration wasn't doing anything." China wanted to have off-the-record meetings with "potentially influential people" in the U.S. presidential campaigns so that official negotiations could "hit the ground running" once a new administration was in power. China wanted to achieve an understanding with the United States before the big international climate negotiations meeting in Copenhagen this December—hence the desire to start the dialogue before January 20 of this year.

Bill told me, "I personally have the opinion that a deal is in reach." That, of course, begs the question of what the deal is, which I discussed with Bill at length. Here is where the Guardian got the story quite wrong:

Chandler said he and Holdren drew up a three-point memo that envisaged:

• Using existing technologies to produce a 20 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2010.

• Cooperating on new technology including carbon capture and storage and fuel efficiency for cars.

• The United States and China signing up to a global climate change deal in Copenhagen.

"We sent it to Xie and he said he agreed," said Chandler.

The reporter, like many people, has confused an absolute reduction in carbon emissions with efforts to reduce energy and carbon intensity (per dollar of GDP). China had previously announced a goal to cut energy intensity (energy per GDP) by 20 percent by 2010, which from my perspective was not much of a target, since it didn't stop an accelerated use of coal even if they had met their annual efficiency targets, which they didn't.

The priority is to get China off its staggeringly unsustainable trajectory of coal consumption and carbon dioxide emissions growth of the first part of this decade. If they don't, they can single-handedly finish off the climate no matter what we and the other rich countries do. Now the good news is that China has an excellent track record on achieving gains in energy efficiency and has begun to ramp up its efficiency efforts and aggressively expand its carbon-free electricity targets (recently committing, for instance, to triple its wind goal to 100,000 MW by 2020).

China is almost certainly not going to agree to a hard cap this year. And it is not news that China has been contemplating a strong carbon intensity (CO2 per GDP) target. But it would be news if, as Bill says, they are willing to publicly agree to aggressive and enforceable energy efficiency and carbon intensity targets, including a 50 percent carbon intensity cut by 2020.

Bill also believes that "a hard cap in emissions is possible" by China for 2025 with a major inflection point around 2020. He points out that Jiang Kejun, director of the Energy Research Institute, one of China's leading policy thinktanks, has been delivering a very strong presentation about how China could quickly move toward a low-carbon economy. In March 2009 Jiang gave a presentation, "Low-Carbon Scenario up to 2050 for China," to the 18th Asia-Pacific seminar on climate change, in which he lays out how China could meet a low-carbon (LC) scenario that flattens out their emissions trajectory by 2020.

But now we are getting way ahead of ourselves. Before the cap, China needs to show itself and the world it can achieve a sharp slowdown in emissions growth.

Thus, first, we need to get a deal with China that includes some serious, verifiable commitments. Needless to say, that presupposes the United States itself can pass a law like the Waxman-Markey climate and clean energy bill that puts us on the path to sharply reduce our emissions.

The U.S. House of Representatives Approves Landmark (Bipartisan!) Climate Bill, 219-212. Waxman-Markey Would Complete America's Transition to a Clean Energy Economy, Which Started with the Stimulus Bill

June 26, 2009

My Salon piece, "One Brief Shining Moment for Clean Energy," is up. We do need to savor moments like these, since, as I note in that article, given modern conservative ideology, which is 100 percent anti-conservation, "the country can only contemplate serious environmental legislation when we have the unique constellation of a Democratic president and [large] Democratic majorities in both houses, an occurrence far rarer than a total eclipse of the sun."

Every journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step—including stopping human-caused global warming at "safe levels," as close as possible to 2°C.

This bill would complete America's transition to a clean energy economy, which was begun in the stimulus. In April, the U.S. Energy Information Administration revised its long-term forecast and now projects wind power will be 5 percent of U.S. electricity in 2012 and all renewables will be at 14 percent, thanks to the stimulus. Within four decades, the vast majority of American's carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel consumption will be replaced by a suite of new technologies (discussed in chapters 3 and 4).

This bill makes possible an international deal in Copenhagen this De-cember—as well as a bilateral deal with China, hopefully sooner. Had the bill failed, the chance of humanity avoiding catastrophic climate change would be all but eliminated. As Nobel Prize winner Al Gore wrote earlier today, there was no "backup plan" to Waxman-Markey. In this post, I will re vise and extend the post I wrote after the bill passed the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Many people have asked me how I can reconcile my climate science realism, which demands far stronger action than the Waxman-Markey bill requires, and my climate politics realism, which has led me to strongly advocate passage of this flawed bill.

The short answer is that Waxman-Markey is the only game in town. If it fails, I see little real chance of stabilizing anywhere near 350 to 450 ppm since serious U.S. action would certainly be off the table for years, the effort to jumpstart the clean energy economy in this country would stall, the international negotiating process would fall apart, and any chance of a deal with China would be dead. Warming of 5°C (9°F) or more by century's end would be all but inevitable, with 850 to 1000+ ppm. If Waxman-Markey becomes law, then I see perhaps a one in three chance of averting catastrophe—not high enough, but not near zero.

For climate-politics realists, the vote today is a staggering achievement. Today was the first time the U.S. House of Representatives has ever voted on climate legislation. This country hasn't enacted a major economy-wide clean air bill since the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. And that bill had a cap-and-trade system where 97 percent of the permits were given to polluters. And it focused on direct, obvious, short-term health threats to Americans. And that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, when the entire Republican establishment wasn't dead set against any government-led effort to reduce pollution.

Yet Waxman-Markey did get eight Republican votes, which is eight more than the stimulus bill got! This bill needed Republican votes, which will also be true in the Senate. The closeness of the House vote—with 44 Dems voting No—makes clear that the really hard work is yet to come.

And for those who say this doesn't do enough—I agree 100 percent. But then the original Clean Air Act didn't do enough. And the 1987 Montréal protocol would not have stopped concentrations of ozone depleting substances from rising and thus would not have saved the ozone layer. But it began a process and established a framework that, like the CAA, could be strengthened over time as the science warranted. The painful reality of climate change is going to become increasingly obvious in the coming years, and strengthening is inevitable.

In an earlier post, I discussed the myriad forces lined up against serious climate action. I won't repeat that here, but instead want to excerpt something that David Corn wrote for Mother Jones, which states the climate-politics realist position very well—a position you might not associate with Corn and MJ:

So should progressives back this not-a-full-loaf bill? Uber-blogger Matt Yglesias offers this hard-headed guidance: follow the Waxman. Citing a recent Charles Homans profile of Waxman, he writes:

There's simply nobody else in Congress whose record of progressive legislative accomplishments can hold a candle to Waxman's. When you draw intersecting curves of "what needs to be done" and "what can realistically be done," Waxman has time and again put himself at the intersection, and I think it involves a fair amount of hubris to think that you know better than him what the best feasible legislative outcome is.

I would add Representative Ed Markey to this equation. For decades, Markey has been a passionate champion of environmental and clean energy causes. A few months ago, he complained to me about Washington's inability to address the threat of climate change. Like Waxman, he gives a damn about this and truly wants to pass the toughest bill possible.

Enviros can decide for themselves how much compromise to accept. Ultimately, our political system may not at this time—even with President Barack Obama at the helm—be able to handle the full truth about climate change and act accordingly. But it's hard to second-guess Markey and Wax-man. If they are cutting deals, they are doing what they reluctantly need to do, not what they want.

It will be a staggering achievement if, in six to nine months, an energy and climate bill that looks something like Waxman-Markey is signed into law by President Obama.

From the perspective of political realism, though, it will be a great challenge just to stop this bill from being weakened as it winds itself through the House and especially the Senate. Indeed, it should be strengthened. That is the hard task ahead.

From the perspective of climate science realists, the bill has two flaws, one of which is very serious. And I don't mean the allocations for big polluters. I know many of my readers disagree, but I just don't think that the allocation undermines the goals of the bill at all, and in fact are a perfectly reasonable way of satisfying political needs while preventing windfalls for polluters and preserving prices. Harvard economist and cap-and-trade expert Robert Stavins has written that "The appropriate characterization of the Waxman-Markey allocation is that more than 80 percent of the value of allowances go to consumers and public purposes, and less than 20 percent to private industry."

The first flaw is the 2 billion offsets that polluters can potentially use instead of their own emissions reductions. I have previously explained why I am far less worried about domestic offsets. In a regulated market with a cap, many of the domestic offsets will represent real reductions of US greenhouse gas emissions, and the total supply of cheap domestic offsets will be limited. I have also explained why I do not believe the international offsets threaten the overall integrity of the bill. The key point is that last year, the entire international offsets market utilized by the Europeans was 82 million tons with an average price of $25/ton (and about half of those tons were questionable, low-cost tons from reducing HFC refrigerants from China that won't be available by 2012). If the United States comes into the international offsets market even in a modest way, the price will certainly be higher than that, especially if we work to improve offset quality as the bill demands. Still, I'd love the Senate to improve the bill by sunsetting the offsets, phasing them out over time.

The bottom line is that the vast amounts of moderate-cost near-term domestic emissions reductions strategies—energy efficiency, conservation, replacing coal power with natural gas-fired power, wind power, biomass cofiring, recycled energy and so on—will be available at a net cost of $20/ton or less (in quantity) in 2020, which is considerably lower than the likely cost of international offsets.

And that brings us directly to the second and far graver flaw—the 2020 target is too weak. Given the lost eight years of the Bush administration, it was inevitable that a bill that doesn't even impose a cap until 2012 could not have the same 2020 target (compared to 1990 levels) that the Europeans are considering (a 20 percent to 30 percent reduction).

That means we're going to build too much polluting crap in the next decade. That means we'll have to go back and unbuild it at some point. More expensive, sure, than doing it right the first time, but no more difficult than deploying the dozen or so accelerated stabilization wedges globally in three to four decades needed to beat 450 ppm.

For me, a two-term President Obama (together with the next three Congresses) cannot solve the global warming problem, but can create the conditions that allow the next couple of presidents to do what is needed. Or he can be thwarted, making it all but impossible for future presidents.

The only hope for stabilizing at 350 to 450 ppm is a WWII-scale and WWII-style effort as I have said many times. And that implies a level of desperation we don't have now, a desperation that will come as the planet heats up, yet more ice melts faster than anyone expected, and yet more droughts, heat waves, and superstorms are inflicted on us. When we have that desperation, probably in the 2020s, we'll want to already have:

• substantially dropped below the business-as-usual emissions path

• started every major business planning for much deeper reductions

• goosed the cleantech venture and financing community

• put in place the entire framework for U.S. climate regulations

• accelerated many tens of gigawatts of different types of low-carbon energy into the marketplace

• put billions into developing advanced low-carbon technology

• started building out the smart, green grid of the twenty-first century

• trained and created millions of clean energy jobs

• negotiated a working international climate regime

• brought China into the process

This bill is crucial to achieving all of those vital goals.

Kudos to Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman and Ed Markey and President Obama—and a great many other progressive politicians and advocates— for making this historic moment happen.

Enjoy the weekend. The really hard work—Senate passage—is next (see afterword).

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