Obama Chickens Out on Energy

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In his address from the Oval Office on Tuesday night, President Obama eloquently laid out the case that we have failed to confront our dependence on fossil fuels, and that now is the time for us to do so. Obama acknowledged that our failure to do this so far has been caused not just by obeisance to entrenched interests, but also by "a lack of political courage and candor."

But he failed to use this opportunity to marshal public support for a logical, tangible goal that would reduce our destructive consumption of oil and coal. As Obama noted, he campaigned on, and the House of Representatives passed, a bill that would finally put a cap on U.S. carbon emissions. So you would think that Obama must surely have gone on to note that the bill is now stuck in the Senate, where it has not gained the supermajority needed by the extraconstitutional requirement that is enforced in this Congress by Republicans and conservative Democrats. You would be wrong.

Instead, Obama pivoted from discussing concrete steps to his favored posture of triangulation, saying:

"I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party—as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development—and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development. All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fear hearing in the months ahead."

I've followed the energy debate closely for years, and I've never wondered why the industry spends so little on R&D relative to the high-tech industry. The reasons for that would seem obvious: there's oil in the ground, and drilling for it will make you money, while playing around with new energy sources may not. It's a nonsensical comparison to the high-tech industry, where new products serving new purposes are constantly being invented. Powering an electrical grid is nothing like inventing the iPad.

The idea that we can solve this problem of our massive, inefficient energy use through investing more in R&D is ridiculous. We need to start bringing down our emissions immediately, before Manhattan finds itself under water. Spending more money on research into technologies that may or may not be more efficient, and may or may not be economically viable 10 years from now, is insufficient.

There are plenty of technologies, such as driving smaller cars, or hybrids, or taking buses, or living in smaller houses, that do not need to be researched and developed; they just need to be chosen. And they will be chosen if we make indulging in SUVs and McMansions prohibitively expensive, to reflect the social cost of global warming, and the cost of disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explosion that forced Obama to make this address in the first place.

Obama should know all this, and his decision to pretend otherwise reeks of the same lack of courage and candor he had just lambasted unnamed predecessors for. Tossing out the pain-free idea that we can invest our way out of this problem is politically convenient, but it is not realistic.

Obama swiftly pivoted to sounding like he was filled with steely resolve, saying, "But the one approach I will not accept is inaction." But merely investing in energy research is little better than inaction. What Obama needed to say, if he was willing to stake his presidency on combating catastrophic climate change, as he had previously staked his presidency—and won—on the proposition that Americans are all entitled to affordable health insurance, was that he would not tolerate anything short of a bill that caps or taxes carbon emissions. He did not, and we will all suffer the consequences.