A Green Review of Obama’s State of the Union Address

President sets ambitious clean energy goals but fails to mention climate change.

I didn’t envy Barack Obama last night. As he gave his State of the Union speech, he must have known that almost everybody in America has some gripe about the actual state of the union and that, as President, he’s expected to fix all the country’s problems: reduce the deficit, revive the job market, and restore the economy, all without the partisan bitterness Washington has become known for. Add saving the world from impending climactic catastrophes, and you’ve got a tall order.

But, hey, he asked for the job.

Expectations were high among greens and climate hawks. As the slightly-more-powerful GOP threatens to derail clean energy plans, sustainability advocates were looking for strong leadership from the President. Did he impress or disappoint? You can decide that for yourself. In case you didn’t see the whole speech, here’s what went down (you can read the full text here.)

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist.  But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal.  We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Already, we are seeing the promise of renewable energy. Robert and Gary Allen are brothers who run a small Michigan roofing company. After September 11th, they volunteered their best roofers to help repair the Pentagon. But half of their factory went unused, and the recession hit them hard.

Today, with the help of a government loan, that empty space is being used to manufacture solar shingles that are being sold all across the country. In Robert’s words, “We reinvented ourselves.”

That’s what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge.  We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.

After sharing the classic Inspiring Story About Ordinary People, Obama set several very ambitious clean energy goals:

  • “…by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.”
  • “…we can…become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.”
  • “I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies.”
  • “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail…”

We would be making some great progress, if we could achieve all that. But Republicans have already announced their intentions of rolling back clean energy spending (AmTrak, Energy Star, and weatherization are on the list), so Obama’s demands have a slim chance, at best.

Maybe in an effort to lend some bipartisan-ness to his address, he defined “clean energy” in a polluter-friendly way:

Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all….

I’m with the wind and solar folks. While you could say that natural gas is an improvement over coal, “clean coal” simply doesn’t exist right now. And nuclear is massively expensive, non-renewable, and not truly clean. But none of this is new.

What has angered greens the most is not what Obama said, but what he didn’t say. The words “climate change” and “global warming” appeared nowhere in his speech. David Roberts explains why this is a problem:

Obama wants to launch a clean energy race. And good for him. But what are the stakes? What is the threat? Where is the urgency? If it’s just about international competition, why not focus on good macroeconomic policy — why go to such lengths to build up this economic sector, these technologies? Why not just leave it to the market?

Here’s why: The U.S. needs to get at or close to zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century or there will be severe and possibly irreversible changes in the climate, leading to massive, widespread human suffering. That’s why we don’t have time to wait for the invisible hand of the market.

Another big complaint is that Obama didn’t stand up for the Clean Air Act. Although he did mention “commonsense safeguards to protect the American people” he could have responded more specifically to the effort to eliminate the our last chance at regulating carbon.

Of course, I would have liked to see more in Obama’s State of the Union address, but I can’t say I was really disappointed. Pre-speech polling showed that Americans mainly wanted to hear about jobs, healthcare, and the economy. Global warming, not so much. There are plenty of reasons why Obama should have mentioned climate change, but none of them would have given him the political boost that he needs.

In the end, he’s still a politician. And when you’re a politician, getting re-elected is more important than saving the world.

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2 thoughts on “A Green Review of Obama’s State of the Union Address

  1. Pingback: Obama Admin Announces Massive Coal Mining Expansion | RYSE

  2. Pingback: Obama Admin Announces Massive Coal Mining Expansion | Through a Green Lens

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