Carlos Rymer

Sustainability, Life, and More…

Archive for the tag “obama”

Are We Already Practically Cooked?

These days, it feels as if the climate debate has entirely fallen off the agenda (even Obama is not allowed to say “climate” anymore). So much has the debate shifted that it feels like we’re already practically cooked, waiting for the climate to warm up to levels that will simply reorganize Earth in a way that won’t be very comforting for anybody. We have gone from the days of Texas mega wind farm Ads on TV and the constant mention of climate and energy in the presidential campaign to a time where climate change is no longer in the agenda of U.S. politics. Obviously, this has thrown people off even as a global movement to address climate change has grown to record levels.

At the same time, we have experienced early warnings of the catastrophic effects severe climate change will bring to society. From floods of biblical proportions in Pakistan, Brazil, and Australia to massive snowstorms in the U.S. and Europe to record low winter sea ice extent in January, we are coming to grips with the reality of climate change. It is becoming all too clear that climate change is already affecting us directly in many ways, from rising food prices causing social instability to massive property losses due to increasingly frequent extreme weather events.

Given these realities, can we say that we are practically cooked? An optimist will rightly say we have to keep hoping, while a pessimist would say there’s nothing we can do. Yet the reality is very different from both of these views. While it may look hopeless, the fact is that a revolution is cooking. The world is realizing that clean energy technologies are not just good because they help fight climate change, but also because they provide real market stability, jobs, and hard currency. In spite of real economic problems, both advanced and emerging nations are joining a race that is set to intensify this decade. And if you’ve heard the trade debate lately, it has a lot to do with just that.

Nations are betting that whoever is the best at developing high-end clean energy products will win precious advantage this decade. That is why emerging nations like China are throwing a lot of money at clean energy and why the Obama administration opened an investigation into the matter, why Secretary Steven Chu wants the cost of solar energy to drop 75% by the end of the decade and Vice President Biden announced over $50 billion for new and improved high-speed rail lines, and why investments by major corporate players are now focusing a lot more on innovations that will change how we move around and use energy. From surging wind and solar manufacturing in China to the big bets automakers are making on EVs and plug-in hybrids, the race is clearly on.

My personal bet is that this race is set to intensify in dramatic ways, with investments surging over the next few years and game-changing innovations driving a shift away from fossil fuels and energy waste. While the question of whether this will be enough to slow and reverse climate change remains, it is clear that we aren’t practically cooked yet. In addition to this race, we will need to find ways to actually remove carbon from the atmosphere or adapt to a significantly warmer world, and my hope is that the fruits of this global race will create enough capacity for us to figure out how to do that in a way that is beneficial and does not change global ecological stability. In five years, we will know whether in fact we won’t be cooked by a fast warming planet in the future. Stay tuned for those news.

Our Bet On Clean Energy Innovation

The time to decide on a strategy to remain as #1 is slowly coming to an end. The U.S. has seen a jolt in economic activity as a result of the Recovery Act, but it’s all too clear that this alone won’t bring the U.S. economy back to sustainable growth over the long-term. We have entered a period where huge deficits are in order and the private sector won’t make a comeback where it used to prosper. Instead, something new must arise to fill the gap in economic activity after the U.S. government can no longer sustain the economy by issuing debt. The Obama administration has repeatedly said that it is “confident” that clean energy is the only sector that can fill that economic gap and pave the way to lower deficits, a higher trade surplus, and a better overall fiscal status.

Until very recently, the climate movement in the US, largely led by youth, was the main reason why clean energy had a future. The idea was that we had to develop clean energy to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and slash our oil bill, which was financing “terrorists” and making the trade deficit worse. The youth climate movement was successful in making it clear that we better develop a clean energy economy to also create the jobs of the future and become the leader in this all-too-important sector. So today, the Obama administration understands that developing clean energy is all about creating jobs in the US and cleaning up the Federal books (though more importantly it’s about preventing runaway climate change). Whether “clean energy” means wind, solar, and geothermal or nuclear, clean coal, and biofuels is another debate. We know that nuclear, clean coal, and biofuels would not produce enough jobs compared to wind, solar, and geothermal, so I assume the outcome will be a mix, as Obama actually intends in his strategic political plan.  However, Obama may be overoptimistic in thinking that the US can win the clean energy race under his plans.

First of all, unlike other industries of the past that generated big economic growth (think cars, Internet, IT, etc.), clean energy is something the entire world knows about and is working hard to get its hands on. While it takes Washington years to make any decision on clean energy, Asia and Europe have already been racing to develop the best clean energy technologies in the world. Out of the top 10 clean energy companies in the world, only one or two are from the U.S., while increasingly more and more Chinese clean energy companies are going public. That’s because China made the decision to take this market a few years ago, and it’s already succeeding.

According to the Apollo Alliance, a US labor organization that promotes a clean energy economy, the US already imports over 70% of all components for renewable energy projects. Most of this manufacturing is happening in China, which has already become the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines and solar components. With an economy that’s less than half the US economy, China is already spending more than twice as much than the US on clean energy, and plans to ramp it up further. And while experts have believed that China would focus on manufacturing while the US focuses on innovation, China is spending big on creating breakthrough technologies as well. Already, it is funneling $1 billion into the world’s first clean coal power plant that will capture carbon dioxide, and only because there’s less red tape in China to begin construction of such a plant.

The Breakthrough Institute has analyzed how much the U.S. would need to spend in order to remain competitive in this sector and truly create the technologies that will lead the market. According to its analysis, the U.S. will spend about $175 billion over the next five years on clean energy, including R&D and tax incentives. On the other hand, China alone plans to spend $397 billion, leaving the other “Asian Tigers” out. This leaves the U.S. at a significant disadvantage, making it highly unlikely to create the leading clean energy technologies that can fill it’s economic gap. Even passage of a climate bill in Congress, which would certainly put all serious action until at least 2014, would be insufficient to close this gap.

In the end, the numbers do show that the Obama administration’s bet on clean energy will probably not hold out. Asia will end up taking all the manufacturing jobs and exporting their technologies to the U.S., and the U.S. will have to look elsewhere for innovation in order to fill the economic gap. And while cloud computing has its promises, it will not create a market big enough to fill the gap. So, I wouldn’t bet on clean energy making it for the U.S. economy, even if there was a change in Washington. It is time for a drive in innovation in a variety of sectors, not just clean energy. It’s really the only way out.

Author’s note: I didn’t make any mention of EVs and high-speed trains because they’re in the transportation sector. While they are clean technologies, I wanted to focus on clean energy. Readers should know that the US is also behind in these other clean techs.

Response to Letter for McKibben

Response to a letter to Bill McKibben (here).

Good arguments. I agree that Obama is not the only person to blame for all of this (no climate deal at Copenhagen). One thing to keep in mind is that Obama and his negotiators were all tied with a rope that was being pulled back every time they tried to move forward. We all know that in the U.S. it’s going to come down to Congress, particularly the Senate, and not to President Obama. Kyoto died because the Senate killed it, and I have no doubt they would do the same if Obama decided to go ahead and commit hundreds of billions per year to pay climate debt and stick to European-like emission targets (40% by 2020). Somewhere around the web is an interview with Stern where he explains that the Obama administration wanted to make sure they didn’t commit the same mistake as the Clinton administration, just to have legislation killed by the Senate. And we know how hard it’s been to even get climate legislation considered in the Senate.

On the other hand, I think Obama clearly disrespected the rest of the world when he decided to come up with an “accord” with only a few nations (those that in the first place were holding back any agreement). It doesn’t matter whether you’re a major polluter or not; as a sovereign nation working under a framework that includes everybody’s opinion, you have to respect what others think and not just sideline them. If you heard the discussions that went on from heads of state, you noticed that people were very angry for very good reasons… their people were becoming victims of a problem they did not create. And so for Obama to ignore that, I think it’s extremely disrespectful, no matter if you’re one of the two big polluters, and especially when you promote the idea of improving lives globally. After all, I think it was the U.S. that got the rest of the world working under the “framework” that mentioned in the letter.

So, if we want all of this to change, I think we’ve taken away two things. The first is that the rest of the world is really ready to do what it takes. The second is that the U.S. really isn’t… because of the Senate. So we have to really try to change how the Senate thinks if we want to get on the right path. I don’t see hundreds of billions coming out of the Senate for clean energy and energy efficiency the way you see $125 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan. That in itself is also a disrespect to the rest of the world and to all Americans. It means that unnecessary, special interest based wars are bigger priorities than survival, and that’s just wrong. We can’t blame Obama for everything, but Obama needs to step up his efforts on climate like he did on health care. He has done very little to rally people to make, for example, the 1 million phone calls to Congress he’s getting from Americans in support of health reform. He needs to do the same for climate change, and we haven’t seen the beginning of that yet. I hope 2010 is all about that.

The Obama Administration Needs To Hear and Then Say 350!

CCC_CoverLToday, I visited the White House’s blog to check up on what the administration is doing. Perhaps the most interesting entry for the day was one by John P. Holdren, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the Obama Administration, better known as the “science czar.”

Mr. Holdren’s entry was on the “latest” science and what it tells us we should do to avert climate catastrophe – i.e. 1-meter-plus sea-level rise, off-the-records tropical storms and weather events, extreme drought, loss of biodiversity, and all the impacts these will have on human society (leading to violence, instability, and economic depression) – and ensure a prosperous future for our generation and those to come.

According to Mr. Holdren, the latest science says that we need to keep the global average temperature from increasing 2 degrees Celsius in order to prevent carbon sinks from becoming carbon sources, which would eventually heat up the planet up to 10 degrees Celsius. Now, in order to keep temperature below that threshold, Mr. Holdren uses the IPCC‘s 2007 assessment to indicate that the world’s greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 and then shrink 50% of current levels by 2050.

Now, it must be acknowledged that this position is a breakthrough. A few years ago, the United States would not even consider something like this, and today we are affirming that we must go down that path. In addition, in the first several months of the Obama administration, the United States is engaging with China, the European Union, Latin America, and other players to build technological partnerships that will lead to breakthroughs and technology transfers. This is all in addition to the biggest investment in U.S. history in clean energy and energy efficiency, as Mr. Holdren rightly points out.

However, the position that global emissions must shrink 50% below current levels by 2050 is not made with the latest science. Instead, it is made using outdated science, as the IPCC uses data up to 2005 only. Since then, science has made many breakthroughs, and much of the new findings about climate change has been released in a report by the United Nations Environment Programme. The 2009 Climate Change Science Compendium says that under the path outlined by Mr. Holdren, the global average temperature will rise by more than 3 degrees Celsius this century, which would effectively do nothing to stave off climate catastrophe.

Fortunately, there are those out there who get where we need to go. We can no longer afford to follow the IPPC’s Fourth Assessment Report. We must follow the most recent, cutting-edge science that tells us that atmospheric carbon dioxide must remain below 350 parts per million to avoid rapid climate change. An international movement is brewing up and calling exactly for that goal, but it needs to reach the Obama administration very soon.

I envision people, especially young people, going to events organized by the Obama administration (whether it be for Obama, Bide, Clinton, or anybody else) and asking why the administration refuses to look at the most recent science rather than the science up to 2005. I envision 350 making it to Obama events in one way or another and forcing him to no longer ignore the fact that the most recent science calls for even more aggressive action, and that we have to go to Copenhagen knowing this and ready to negotiate how we will put in place a treaty that will get us to 350ppm of carbon dioxide this century. Fortunately, that’s what the International Day on Climate Action will hope to do…

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