Parsing the President: no “climate change”?

I watched the President’s Tuesday evening press conference twice, and have been studying the transcript as well. I believe the best way to understand a policymaker is simple: read, watch, or listen to the words that he or she says. Getting a policymaker’s views through a news filter distorts and loses content. In this blog, I hope I can show you where to look for the best primary sources, and only then give you my analysis.

The Tuesday evening press conference should keep me busy for at least a week, so I will break it up into small bites. I was stunned by the President’s language when asked about his cap-and-trade proposal. The premise of the reporter’s question was that the cap-and-trade proposal is running into resistance from Congressional Democrats. Here’s what the President said in response:

When it comes to cap and trade, the broader principle is that we’ve got to move to a new energy era, and that means moving away from polluting energy sources towards cleaner energy sources. That is a potential engine for economic growth. I think cap and trade is the best way, from my perspective, to achieve some of those gains because what it does is it starts pricing the pollution that’s being sent into the atmosphere.

The way it’s structured has to take into account regional differences; it has to protect consumers from huge spikes in electricity prices. So there are a lot of technical issues that are going to have to be sorted through. Our point in the budget is let’s get started now, we can’t wait. And my expectation is that the energy committees or other relevant committees in both the House and the Senate are going to be moving forward a strong energy package. It will be authorized, we’ll get it done and I will sign it.

I rewound this to make certain I hadn’t misheard him. He never said the words “climate change,” “global warming,” “greenhouse gases,” “carbon,” “carbon dioxide,” or “C-O-2.” His answer was entirely about clean energy and clean energy technology. He expects that the committees will move forward a strong energy package, not a strong climate change package, and not (necessarily) a cap-and-trade bill. This persisted throughout the press conference.

I tried to figure out if this is intentional, so I looked at the President’s recent weekly address, in which he used similar language:

First, it must reduce our dependence on dangerous foreign oil and finally put this nation on a path to a clean, renewable energy future. There is no longer a doubt that the jobs and industries of tomorrow will involve harnessing renewable sources of energy. The only question is whether America will lead that future. I believe we can and we will, and that’s why we’ve proposed a budget that makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy, while investing in technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and fuel-efficient cars and trucks that can be built right here in America.

Again, it’s all about clean renewable energy and spending money on technology, with no mention of climate change or global warming. I am not suggesting any change in the President’s substantive view on climate change, nor that he has given up on it as a legislative matter. He is, however, framing this as a clean energy and technology issue, rather than as a climate change / global warming issue. If I’m missing some other venue in which he has recently advocated vigorously for climate change legislation and framed it as such, please point it out to me in the comments.

This does not seem to be an oversight. It appears strategic. At a minimum, it would allow him to later declare victory if the Congress does not pass a cap-and-trade bill, but instead just increases clean energy research funding in appropriations bills.

I should mention three side notes about his second quote:

  1. Clean coal is not renewable energy.
  2. He included clean coal in the list. This is somewhat surprising, and I’m glad that he included it.
  3. He left nuclear power off the list. This is not surprising, and I’m disappointed that he excluded it. Nuclear power is clean, reliable, safe, and it emits no greenhouse gases.

13 thoughts on “Parsing the President: no “climate change”?”

  1. Yeah, Obama has long supported clean coal. Seems like it's an Illinois thing.

    Another thing to call out: Obama used the phrase "dependence on dangerous foreign oil." The idea that "foreign oil" is dangerous is something that we at CEA used to fight hard to stamp out.

    I just gave my, there's nothing wrong with importing oil lecture in my energy/environment MBA class this week. We talked about how while it is bad for the world to be "dependent on oil," since the lack of diversification gives countries in OPEC monopoly power and causes environmental problems, there's nothing wrong with "foreign oil." Whether a country imports or exports oil doesn't affect a country's vulnerability to macroeconomic supply shocks, and a country that is a net exporter (like Venuzuela right now) suffers when the price of oil inevitably comes down.

    Useful blog. Hopefully it will impart some better economic thinking into the debate.

  2. I'd be interested to hear more of your thoughts on clean coal. The little bit of research I've done suggests that the technology to perfect the process is still years away. Furthermore, there are a multitude of jurisdictional liability issues that must be sorted out. It seems, everyone likes the idea of clean coal, but nobody likes the idea of CO2 being pumped into ground underneath their cities and lands. I hope that the US will come back and embrace nuclear power again, but I'm afraid the prohitbitive costs of constructing nuclear plants and the problem of disposing radioactive waste make it an infeasible solution.

    Great blog. I'm looking forward to reading more in the future. I'll link to you on my blog.

  3. "He left nuclear power off the list. This is not surprising, and I’m disappointed that he excluded it. Nuclear power is clean, reliable, safe, and it emits no greenhouse gases."

    Nuclear power is not perfectly clean. It does emit greenhouse gases indirectly through resource intensive mining and is environmentally destructive. While nuclear plants produce no significant greenhouse gas emissions in they're operation they do need Uranium a scarce resource that is commonly mined in environmentally destructive ways. Nuclear power plants also require large amounts of water an increasingly scarce resource in parts of the U.S. a plant had to shutdown in the south last year because of an ongoing drought causing a power shortage. Similar to coal, the mining often involves mountain top removal and other environmentally destructive practices. The supply of Uranium is also thought to be very small, decreasing the potential for long term use of nuclear power as an energy source. I just feel it is important to include the externalities commonly left out of discussions on nuclear power.

  4. He may be finessing his message more now, but he was pretty specific about climate change and cap-and-trade in October 2007:

    "As President, I will set a hard cap on all carbon emissions at a level that scientists say is necessary to curb global warming – an 80% reduction by 2050. To ensure this isn't just talk, I will also commit to interim targets toward this goal in 2020, 2030, and 2040. These reductions will start immediately, and we'll continue to follow the recommendations of top scientists to ensure that our targets are strong enough to meet the challenge we face."

    He can probably satisfy these commitments using the Clean Air Act rather than relying on new legislation, except it will take years and will be like using a hammer to perform dentistry.

  5. I agree with your bit of research, except I'd say many years away. Yet the President has said he wants no new coal plants until we have such or similar technologies available. This is from October 2007:

    "And we must find a way to stop coal from polluting our atmosphere without pretending that our nation's most abundant energy source will just go away. It won't. . . . . That's why we must invest in clean coal technologies that we can use at home and share with the world. Until those technologies are available, I will rely on the carbon cap and whatever tools are necessary to stop new dirty coal plants from being built in America – including a ban on new traditional coal facilities."

  6. The problem I see is that minus a belief in the importance of "climate change" there is nothing "dirty" about emitting CO2. And if the point is not CO2 itself but other byproducts of burning coal, that implies a far different strategy than playing around with carbon sequestration. The relentless use of "clean" to mean "not emitting a perfectly harmless, colorless, odorless, inert gas that humans exhale" distorts discussion on this subject. If Obama is planning to impose this scheme for some other reason than a belief in climate change then Obama is bonkers.

  7. I'd like to respond to the point about limited supplies of uranium. While conventional reactors require uranium fuel enriched in U-235 (which is somewhat rare), breeder reactors are able to convert U-238 (much more abundant) into fissionable plutonium, so that at the end of a power cycle there is actually more useful fuel than at the beginning. This process also occurs in conventional reactors (to some degree), which is why the power output is greater at the endf of the fuel cycle than at the beginning. There are legitimate concerns about nuclear proliferation, since this is an easy way to make bomb material. However, if you are starved for power, a breeder reactor will greatly extend the lifetime of your fuel supply (roughly a factor of 10).

  8. Nathan,
    I applaud your call for "full disclosure" of externalities, but there are externalities in almost every eco-friendly power source that nobody wants to talk about, e.g. thousands of sq. miles of desert covered with solar panels plus large quantities of water required to keep the panels clean, the "visual pollution" of wind farms in Nantucket Sound (ask Teddy K. about that one) not to mention all the dead bats, land transformed from a "natural" state to agricultural purposes to cultivate bio-fuels, rivers dammed for hydropower. Nothing's perfect, but one thing is certain — nuclear power is the only zero/low CO2 alternative that's capable of producing a sufficent quantity of energy at reasonable cost and in a reasonable time frame. The failure of the clean and green AGW crowd to put nuclear power at the head of the list of alternative energy alternatives suggests to me that they are either ignorant of the laws of physics or that there is more to their agenda than cooling the earth.

  9. Yup, we should look at all aspects of an activity.

    Regarding nukes. I was amused to see the most recent Science magazine. On page 1538 two scientists heap praise on the President for allowing government scientists to now do their work, unfettered by politics. On page 1557 a scientist at Yucca Mountain is quoted as saying Obama's decision on Yucca Mountain is "a slap in the face to the . . . integrity of the scientists who have worked out here." I guess unfettered science is good, until it doesn't support your position.

Comments are closed.