Which is worse, a President who doesn’t believe in climate change, or a President who believes in it but won’t do anything about it? President Obama’s brief remarks on climate change (about 500 words) at yesterday’s news conference clearly demonstrates that we face four more years of inaction (at best!) on climate change.
Mark Landler asked, “What specifically do you plan to do in a second term to tackle the issue of climate change? And do you think the political will exists in Washington to pass legislation that could include some kind of a tax on carbon?” Obama reviewed three topics: (1) the reality of climate change, (2) past accomplishments, (3) future expectations.
Obama didn’t answer the question. The question specifically referred to a carbon tax, but Obama said nothing about it, and clearly demonstrated that nothing will happen for four years. Obama did acknowledge that climate change is real, but that’s it.
So what about those past accomplishments? He mentioned two:
1. Doubling fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks.
The problem is Jeavons’ paradox: increasing efficiency in itself does not decrease consumption. Increasing efficiency decreases the cost of energy, and thus encourages increased energy consumption. The gains you make in increased efficiency are completely overwhelmed by the vastly increased consumption.
2. Double the production of clean energy.
It’s true that wind energy has dramatically increased in the U. S. in percentage terms. But how significant is this? The total wind electricity generated in 2011 was 120,177,000 megawatt hours. But the total energy consumption in the U. S. is about 97 quads (quadrillion BTU), and of that wind energy is about 0.4 quads. Despite all the huge increases, wind is still less than 1% of all U. S. energy. Doubling next to nothing is still next to nothing.
Moreover, it’s all irrelevant. No matter how much wind electricity you generate, if you don’t reduce fossil fuel consumption, it doesn’t matter. In a growing economy where total energy use increases, wind energy (or other renewable energy) increases would need to outpace total economic growth to get anywhere. In a growing economy, you have to run faster and faster (produce more and more wind turbines) just to stay in the same place (environmentally speaking). Obama boasted during the campaign that he has INCREASED fossil fuel consumption. In other words, he is boasting that his policies have failed.
Summary: the climate situation has deteriorated during the past four years.
What does Obama want to do about climate change? He proposes to talk about it. He wants a “wide-ranging conversation” about “you know, what realistically can we do long term. . . . for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices.”
Tough political choices, I like that! But then he frames the conversation in such a way that it is designed to fail. If “we can create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change” then that’s what the American people will support. On the other hand, “if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that. I won’t go for that.”
Summary: we’re going to deal with the situation by talking about it. We’ll frame the conversation in such a way that it will be guaranteed to fail.
Well, here are a few clues for Obama and the nation.
1. Economic growth is incompatible with serious climate change action. The economy runs on fossil fuels, and building a renewables infrastructure is going to be very expensive and difficult — it will require (in the short term) huge additional quantities of fossil fuel energy. Don’t get me wrong: we do need to convert to a renewable energy infrastructure. We just need to be honest about what it will involve. The laws of physics trump the laws of politics. It’s called the “limits to growth.”
2. We need a carbon tax. Don’t agree with me on the previous point? Think we can reduce fossil fuels and make the economy grow? No problem! Let us work together in a spirit of compromise! Just establish targets for carbon emissions (including “imported” carbon emissions such as imported industrial goods from China). Then put in place a carbon tax, increased to the point where the carbon emissions fall to the desired level.
If the carbon emissions don’t fall enough, keep raising the carbon tax until they do. I think the economy will shrink if you do this, but hey, let’s try it out. (But this is the alternative that Obama won’t even mention, despite being asked directly.)
3. Livestock agriculture is a key part of the picture. Fossil fuel isn’t all there is. What about methane? What about the colossal biological imbalance on the planet due to our total dominance of nature, and the huge numbers of domestic animals? According to Goodland and Anhang, due to undercounted methane emissions (mostly from livestock), and the carbon dioxide imbalance caused by immense increases in livestock and trashing the land to maintain them, livestock agriculture actually represents more than half of our climate change problem. Go vegan to save the planet.
Yes, by all means let us have a conversation about climate change. But let’s be honest about what climate change action involves. Talking about fuel standards and “green growth” won’t cut it. Instead we need to be talking about limits to growth, carbon taxes, and veganism.