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.)

The second reason Roberts criticizes President Obama is that he believes “The only way that well-worn partisan division can be transcended is through reference to climate change.” In another reaction to Obama’s decision, Roberts asserts that “telling the truth about climate change is also good politics.”

Could it be true that only climate change can transcend partisan divisions? Was the president wrong to appeal to a broader set of public interests to advance clean energy RD&D investment and a portfolio standard? Let’s revisit the latest public opinion analysis. In a recent report titled “Little Change in Opinions about Global Warming: Increasing Partisan Divide on Energy Policies,” the Pew Research Center concluded:

“Views about climate change continue to be sharply divided along party lines… Among Republicans, only 38% agree the earth is warming and just 16% say warming is caused by humans… Just 14% of Republicans say global warming is a very serious problem and 27% view it as a somewhat serious problem; only about a quarter (24%) think it requires immediate action by the government… Among Republican registered voters who agree with the Tea Party, fully 70% do not think there is solid evidence that the average temperature on earth is warming.”

No wonder Republican strategists have successfully used climate change as a wedge issue to rally their base and tarnish Democrats.  Even with cap and trade gone, the Republican leadership sees opposition to EPA greenhouse gas emissions authority as a major linchpin of its 2012 election strategy.

How could Roberts and others possibly get the idea that focusing on climate change is good politics in this environment?  Contrary to their assertions, a focus on climate change would only serve to undermine the possibility of clean energy reform, fueling an ever-greater climate war and potentially contributing to another major Democratic defeat in 2012.

Based on this data, the recent collapse of cap and trade, and the current state of climate change politics, we conclude that the president’s choice made sense. Although climate change remains extremely divisive, Gallup and Pew polling continues to indicate that federal investment in clean energy technology remains one of the most popular forms of energy policy. These investments will drive down the price of low-carbon energy and pave the way for stronger deployment efforts — perhaps even including a strong carbon price at some point — both here and in the developing world, where the vast majority of future emissions will originate.

The question is not whether climate change is an important reason for action on clean energy. That is obvious.  The question is what type of political and policy strategy can successfully expand the national clean energy consensus and begin shifting us in the right direction.  In this context, the role of effective leaders is not just to “speak truth to power,” but to bridge our divides to achieve the outcomes we need.

We can agree to disagree on the role of climate and focus on policy achievements in the near and medium term.  Climate change will eventually get its moment in American politics.  Until then, Obama and his administration have outlined a new approach, and climate advocates would be wise to get behind it.

Tagged with:

15 Responses to “Obama’s Climate Omission: Can We Disagree on Climate and Win on Clean Energy?”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by eg, LeadEnergy. LeadEnergy said: Obama’s Climate Omission: Why We Can Disagree on Climate and Win on Clean Energy #energy #climate [...]

  2. Alex says:

    The problem with this approach is that it won’t work if it’s not coupled with incentives to reduce emissions from existing utilities.

    According to science, there isn’t much time left (if any) to crunch carbon emissions and just investing in clean energy might be too little too late to avoid catastrophe.

    Of course, the need to reduce carbon emissions at all costs doesn’t go well with our market system of perpetual growth but this is not nature’s problem. Nature always bats last, and bats hardest.

  3. Michael Craig says:

    Daniel and Teryn,

    Nice article, but I do have one objection. I don’t think Roberts would dispute that there’s a clear and powerful rationale for the government supporting the development of the clean energy sector. However, for those who see ANY intervention of the government as bad, this rationale will fail, regardless of its validity. Unfortunately, this is the line Republicans seem to be taking – get government out of everything. This cropped up repeatedly in health care, and is now spilling over to clean energy. Certainly, there’s a glaring contradiction here between the government’s involvements in, say, fossil fuels that Republicans don’t rail against, but nonetheless, you will never be able to persuade those who oppose any government intervention.

  4. Michael,
    A reply: there’s a difference between what Republican leaders are saying and doing now, and what Republican-aligned members of the public may resonate with. While the GOP leadership has taken an irresponsible “get government out of everything” kind of line lately, the polling shows that the clean energy messages and rationales the President delivered last Tuesday resonate strongly with the public across partisan affiliations, and in a way that discussions of climate change and climate policy do not.

    In my discussions with Roberts, he’s objected to a perceived notion that those advocating a “technology first” clean energy agenda believe it will unite both parties in the short term, and do so without a real public fight. That’s not so, and those of advocating this measure know that an effort must be won to make the case and win it with the American public at large. There are opportunities for short-term gain, but the long-term does require winning the argument. The question then, is what ground is best to fight on, and the answer seems unequivocal: climate change leaves us on shaky ground as a political rationale and talking point, whereas a clean energy innovation agenda centrally motivated by pluralistic concerns for national economic competitiveness, security, and public health can work across parties and ideological divides. The President knows this, and that’s where he’s laid down the gauntlet.

    Jesse Jenkins

  5. Duncan Gromko says:

    Daniel and Taryn,

    This is a tough issue and, although I disagree with your argument, I understand the sentiment behind it.

    For anyone who follows the IPCC reports on climate change and buys into the science behind them, it’s clear our energy economy needs to immediately begin a dramatic transformation. The most recent IEA report ( – sorry, only exec. summary available w/out purchase) argues that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, CO2 must be kept below 450 ppm. According to the IEA:

    “The commitments that countries have announced under the Copenhagen Accord to reduce their greenhouse‐gas emissions collectively fall short of what would be required to put the world onto a path to achieving the Accord’s goal of limiting the global temperature increase to 2°C.”

    US commitments at Copenhagen (4% below 1990 levels) are insufficient; without cap and trade, we won’t even achieve those reductions. Demand-side economic incentives are necessary to appropriately price the negative externalities of carbon and encourage clean energy. Yes, federal spending on RD&D for clean energy is crucial and I applaud President Obama’s decision to focus on this issue during the State of the Union. But, as numerous presenters argued at the 2010 Breakthrough Conference, both “push” and “pull” mechanisms are needed. Without imposing a cost on carbon, our CO2 emissions will not be significantly affected. Clean energy technology may grow, but it will not displace carbon-intensive energy sources.

    Furthermore, as a WRI report points out (, the interests of climate change do not perfectly align with those of energy independence and other potential allies. If we support energy independence for politically expedient reasons, we miss the forest for the trees. One example is corn-based ethanol: it reduces our dependence on foreign oil, but is no better than oil in terms of reducing greenhouse gases.

    It’s true that climate change has become so politically toxic that any demand-side legislation is out of the question for the immediate future. In the mean time, we should be happy that there will be more money for research and development. But policymakers and advocates need to continue to work to convince the public that climate change is a critical issue that needs to be directly addressed. Education and outreach is needed. If no one stands up for climate change, it will fall further and further from the political debate and the minds of the public. There’s a reason that many of us became dedicated to the issue of climate change: because our leaders spoke about it eloquently and unflinchingly.


  6. Teryn Norris says:

    Thanks Duncan for the comment. As you know, we all recognize the need for rapid deployment, and we’re all working toward a similar long-term vision. The question is what kind of political and policy strategy can begin achieving the technology improvements and political consensus we need to get us there.

    Obama’s proposal included both an increase in RD&D and a clean energy standard. So in terms of the administration’s approach we’re not just talking about RD&D, though that’s clearly one of the primary areas where we can and should make progress right now.

    Based on the evidence, a climate-centric strategy would primarily serve to divide the public, anger and empower the Tea Party base, encourage the Republican House to kill all legislative proposals, and better position themselves for 2012. On the other hand, an agenda with investments in clean energy technology at the front and center speaks to a much broader and more powerful set of public interests, and can continue building the clean energy consensus. We haven’t argued that nobody should be working to advance climate education, just that we believe President Obama’s approach is sound.

    Thanks again and let’s keep the conversation going!


  7. R Margolis says:

    The President’s call may work if one can make the case that global energy demand will sufficiently tax conventional sources to make alternatives economic. So long as the public perceives that cheap natural gas will last forever, even the push for new technology without the climate change issue will falter.

  8. [...] change? Want to create a future that you can…live in? If so, progressive think-tanks like Americans for Energy Leadership want you to shut the hell up about what you want. Are you a climate activist or a Democratic [...]

  9. Climegeist says:

    Hey Teryn and Daniel.

    I’ll rail on you at It’s Getting Hot in Here, but now that I’m on your turf, it’s time to behave.

    I strongly doubt this statement: “Based on the evidence, a climate-centric strategy would primarily serve to divide the public, anger and empower the Tea Party base, encourage the Republican House to kill all legislative proposals, and better position themselves for 2012.”

    What evidence are you talking about? Please share. What are the elements of this hypothetical “climate-centric strategy,” and why is your conclusion necessarily true? I particularly take issue with the idea that the Republicans can put themselves in a better position for 2012 by continuing to deny climate science. Rationally, many Republicans are on the wrong side of the fence here, and if taken to task, they will lose. They will not lose their base, but they will likely lose a lot of independents as they continue to spout the corporate-backed bunk science that is climate denial.

    In the short term you may be right that some legislative proposal might be more likely to killed, but I see it as a strategic mistake in the longer term to back away from the strong rational and moral argument of climate change to ignore that type of messaging. Because in the end, that is the type of messaging it is going to take to cause the change we urgently need, and backing away from it only allows more media and political space for those trying to confuse the public about climate science.

  10. charlesH says:

    Warmers want energy that does not emit CO2 because they look at the climate data and conclude that CAGW is a credible threat that needs to be addressed. Their energy sources of choice are typically wind and solar.

    Skeptics look at the same climate data and conclude the evidence for CAGW is just too weak to justify accepting the current high cost and unreliability of wind/solar. They look at Europe and notice that nuclear has given France the smallest carbon footprint and wind/solar has not been effective in any European country in keeping energy both low cost and low carbon.

    What about nuclear? Some warmers support it (e.g. Dr. James Hansen) but others do not because of toxic waste streams, lingering concerns about safety, cost, and the potential for proliferation.

    What if we could have nuclear power that was far “greener” than current technology, cost considerably less, was even safer and more proliferation resistant? What if this “greener” nuclear technology had already been proven in working prototypes?

    Welcome to LFTR (liquid fluoride thorium reactors) technology. Demonstrated in the 60′s, the thorium/uranium fuel cycle molten salt reactor (LFTR) approach was abandoned to concentrate efforts on the uranium/plutonium fuel cycle pressurized water reactor (PWR) during the cold war bomb making era, an era when lots of plutonium was considered a good thing, not something to be worried about.

    LFTR (compared to current PWR): A waste steam 10,000 times less toxic (some variations of LFTR can actually burn PWR waste). Cost <50%, thus competitive with coal. Even safer (no fuel rods to melt, no high pressure radioactive water to escape, passive criticality control ….). More proliferation resistant.

    What about the politics? Replacing coal with LFTRs is far easier politically than imposing cap n trade or carbon taxes. $10B invested over 10 years could update this technology and make it ready for commercialization. LFTR is attractive to both Democrats/warmers and Republicans/skeptics. It is very green, cost competitive and can be put into production for a realively modest sum.


    Here is a link to a Wired article that does a pretty good job of putting Chinese LFTR issue in context.

    "China Takes Lead in Race for Clean Nuclear Power"

  11. Sam Johnston says:

    1. If the case for major federal investment in clean energy without reference to climate change is so strong, why isn’t it happening, and why is the disparity between it and other investments still so wide? 2. The ideological right will never be persuaded of the merits of large federal investments in anything outside of the military, whether climate change is part of the frame or not. 3. To dismiss climate change as hopelessly partisan is wrong. Many foreign policy matters enjoy bipartisan agreement despite historical differences; international issues are not static. Besides, the main problem there is the failure of the media to report accurately on the issue and its reflexive “he said-she said” style of reporting. Responsible journalism will cure the public’s ignorance while ignoring the climate problem will perpetuate it. 4. This is really just wishful thinking. The only way to move people on big issues like this is to tell the truth and back it up effectively. We will never solve the climate change problem by holding a carrot in front of the fossil fuel industries. 5. If your Doctor tells you you need to cut down on cholesterol, you follow his advice without needing to get a medical degree. The key is restoring public trust in the scientific community, and this again is a problem of the media and responsible journalism. We have big corporate interests dominating big corporate media companies and some want to ask them politely to please support large investments in clean energy because we think it’s a win-win.

    Good luck with that.

    Tell the truth and back it up effectively, people. It’s the only way. If Obama wants to do that dance, that is fine, as long as he recognizes that other parts of the body of the movement are doing other things. With all due respect to the folks at Breakthrough Institute, Ted and Michael, we’re all in this together and trashing half the movement only plays into the interests of the main obstructionists. If you want to push for federal investments we will of course not get in your way. Now back off and get out of our way of telling the truth so that people will understand the real stakes. There is more to be gained by telling the truth than by obscuring it.

  12. [...] Mile Island have left nuclear policy in stasis for decades, but as our President aims to launch a new industrial policy and our nation trends towards a new national energy policy, it may be time to revive our commitment [...]

  13. Teryn Norris says:

    I posted this in response to a comment on another blog and think it offers some answers to previous questions posted here:

    First, we should have clarified that we weren’t suggesting no groups focus on building more consensus around the need for climate change mitigation. We absolutely need that, and I didn’t anticipate people would draw this conclusion.

    What we were suggesting – and where we believe President Obama, Secretary Chu, and much of the administration are correct – is that we cannot win meaningful federal policy reform anytime for the foreseeable future with a climate-centric strategy, and we need an alternative approach with a greater chance of success.

    Some of you are saying that most or all climate activists don’t push climate-centrism, but I don’t think that’s accurate. Look carefully at the writing of Bill McKibben, David Roberts, Joe Romm, and several other climate thought leaders. Are they okay with talking about other benefits from clean energy, sure. But they’ve said numerous times that, most importantly, we need to make this about climate change.

    Cap and trade is sine qua non for comprehensive climate policy, and it turned out to be a political disaster that wasted (literally) hundreds of millions of dollars in advocacy resources and years of effort. Did US-CAP members discuss other benefits of clean energy, clearly. But cap and trade for climate change was the main event, and it collapsed. There’s little to no evidence that it would have succeeded if Obama talked more about climate, as some suggest.

    How we frame the challenge, and what we put at the front and center of our political and policy agenda, matters enormously. What we’ve argued for years is that an investment-centric approach, primarily justified for economic competitiveness and national security, puts us on much more solid ground to win. It can also be more effective at driving down the price of low-carbon energy technologies as rapidly as possible (which may be the single most important factor in determining whether the world gets anywhere close to meeting IPCC emission reduction targets).

    This doesn’t mean that Obama and others should never mention the word “climate” (characterizing what we wrote in this way is a straw man), and it doesn’t mean that parts of the movement shouldn’t be working to advance the climate consensus. I would be surprised if these efforts don’t eventually pay off, but we can’t keep making our federal policy success dependent on climate consensus.

    Will this new approach require an aggressive campaign and debate, absolutely. We can’t know if it will succeed, but we’ve never tried. Until now – hopefully – unless Obama backs out and/or climate-centrist advocates shoot it down. That would be a huge mistake, in my view, and I hope other climate thought leaders will step up to defend and advance this approach.

  14. [...] Mile Island have left nuclear policy in stasis for decades, but as our President aims to launch a new industrial policy and our nation trends towards a new national energy policy, it may be time to revive our commitment [...]

  15. [...] providing financial incentives for best practices. As AEL’s Teryn Norris and Daniel Goldfarb recently posted, President Obama adopted a similar strategy in his State of the Union address, calling for [...]

Leave a Reply