Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obama's Speech and the Environment

At least one point from last night's presidential address should be of interest to environmentalists. Obama called for climate change legislation that includes. The exact timing was not specified, but by "this Congress" he presumably means within the next two years, and probably this year given the difficulty in passing major legislation in an election year.

Thanks to our recovery plan, we will double this nation’s supply of renewable energy in the next three years. We have also made the largest investment in basic research funding in American history – an investment that will spur not only new discoveries in energy, but breakthroughs in medicine, science, and technology.

We will soon lay down thousands of miles of power lines that can carry new energy to cities and towns across this country. And we will put Americans to work making our homes and buildings more efficient so that we can save billions of dollars on our energy bills.

But to truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. And to support that innovation, we will invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.
Unfortunately this includes support for "clean coal," which so far at least appears to be more of a marketing ploy than an actual energy source. (Not to mention that coal mining has all sorts of other deleterious effects.) If we are going to reduce our energy-related emissions, it is more likely to come from the other sources that Obama named – solar, wind, and energy efficiency. A strong climate bill could encourage a shift to cleaner energy and lower energy use.

One element of reducing greenhouse gas emissions that I felt was missing was any mention of a role for public transportation, particularly rail. (The latter was mentioned only in reference to the building of the first transcontinental railroad during the Civil War.) Since public transit generally uses less energy per passenger than automobiles to move the same number of people, expanding transit networks in appropriate areas could go a long way to meeting our climate goals.

I felt that overall the speech laid out a very ambitious agenda. If we get both a climate bill and universal healthcare this spring, this may well be the most efficient first year from a president and Congress in several decades.