By Teryn Norris & Daniel Goldfarb
President Obama’s exclusion of “climate change” from the State of the Union, combined with Carol Browner’s exit as the administration’s top climate advisor, has sparked wide debate across the climate movement. On one hand, many climate advocates are backing the president’s strategy. As Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) put it, “He’s trying to unify… I think it was very smart of him.”
On the other hand, climate advocates like Joe Romm of Climate Progress and David Roberts of Grist are criticizing the president for not using climate change as a central justification for his clean energy proposals. Unfortunately, even after the collapse of cap and trade legislation, Roberts and other critics continue to follow a type of policy literalism that has undermined environmentalists and climate advocates for years.
The argument goes something like this. First, Roberts claims that without climate change as the central justification, the case for federal investment in the clean energy industry “is no stronger than the argument for supporting pharmaceuticals, or telecom, or any other industry that’s likely to be big in the 21st century.” (Roberts wrote partly in response to Norris’ article on the rise of “innovation hawks.”)
However, as the American Energy Innovation Council and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently explained in their reports, other industries like pharmaceuticals, aerospace, and computer electronics spend far more on research and development than the energy industry, due to a variety of market and non-market barriers. The underinvestment is dramatic: whereas pharmaceuticals invest about 18.7% of sales in R&D, the U.S. energy industry only invests 0.3%. The federal government already invests over $30 billion annually in health research, and $80 billion on military R&D, but only $3-5 billion in energy R&D.
Moreover, the current economic challenge from China and other “rising tigers” in clean-tech is clearer than any other industry, and it remains one of the most powerful motivating factors for the U.S. public and policymakers alike (analysts predict the global clean-tech market could surpass $600 billion by 2020). The importance of clean energy technology for the Department of Defense, and for saving the lives of American troops, is creating a new imperative in the defense community. Rising oil prices and instability in the Middle East are simultaneously strengthening the energy security consensus to reduce U.S. reliance on oil. And disasters like Deepwater Horizon and Massey Energy continue to highlight the public health and environmental benefits of reduced fossil fuel consumption.
So much for the argument that only climate change can seriously justify major federal investment in clean energy technology over other industries. The case for expanding these investments for economic competitiveness, national security, and public health reasons is stronger than ever before. (And beyond domestic concerns, cheaper forms of clean energy can help alleviate the poverty of billions who lack electricity access and already suffer from the vagaries of the climate.)