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By Teryn Norris and Jesse Jenkins

Republished from

Barack Obama's final appointments in December indicate a strong commitment to action on climate change. Steven Chu as Energy Secretary, Carol Browner as Energy & Climate Czar, John Holdren as Assistant for Science and Technology -- just to name a few recent selections -- are all proponents of vigorous action to cut U.S. global warming pollution and take leadership on a new international climate treaty. And Hilda Solis, Obama's new Labor Secretary, is a champion of "green jobs."

All is well on the climate front, it seems. Except that it's not.

Carbon cap and trade regulation remains the top federal policy priority for the majority of environmental groups. But in June, cap and trade legislation failed in the Senate, and sixteen Democratic Senators from coal and manufacturing-heavy states voiced their opposition to high carbon pricing. The policy faces even greater obstacles in today's economic climate, since it would increase the energy bills of the American public.

Despite Obama's appointments, climate advocates are thus left to worry: is Obama really prepared to expend his political capital championing a policy that will increase U.S. energy prices in the midst of a recession?

Not likely. Until recently Obama voiced support for carbon regulation, declaring at a governors' climate conference in mid-November that his climate agenda "will start with a federal cap and trade system." But since then, as the recession has deepened, he has said little to nothing about cap and trade. His apparent change of heart may reflect a larger global trend, with European nations increasingly voicing opposition to their Emissions Trading Scheme and Canadians rejecting the Liberal Party's proposed carbon tax in their October election.

Does Obama have an alternative climate strategy? So far, he appears to be wrapping his climate policy into a "green stimulus" plan, focusing on public investments to create "green jobs" in the construction of energy efficient infrastructure. He has even mentioned some investment to build renewable power plants. But the large majority of the stimulus seems set to go toward short-term investments that will quickly create jobs -- retrofitting buildings and constructing traditional infrastructure projects like highways and bridges.

Replacing sustained climate legislation with a short-term "green stimulus" program to create green jobs and perform energy efficiency retrofits is a dangerous possibility. Increased energy efficiency can only satisfy a portion of the necessary reductions in global warming emissions, and it will not help develop and deploy the low-carbon energy technologies that are essential to transform U.S. and global energy systems. Yet with green jobs now positioned as "the solution" to both the economy and the climate, Obama has cover to take the politically expedient route of short-term green stimulus while ignoring serious climate policy.

Avoiding this outcome demands a shift from green jobs to a broader focus on green technology. The single greatest obstacle to creating a "green energy economy" is the high cost of low-carbon energy technology. Technologies like solar photovoltaics, plug-in hybrids, and advanced geothermal are all more expensive than their conventional market competitors.

A serious alternative to cap and trade would therefore focus on making clean energy cheap, prioritizing major, sustained public investments to drive down the price of green technologies as quickly as possible. This would require federal investments on the scale of $500 billion over the next decade to support and accelerate each stage of the energy innovation pipeline: research, development, demonstration, and deployment.

Obama has made it increasingly clear that public investment is his preferred climate policy mechanism. What Obama has not made clear is whether or not he will embrace the type and scale of investments necessary to seriously confront the climate challenge.

If cap and trade is a no-go in today's economic climate, Obama must redouble his commitment to public investment in clean energy, investing at least $500 billion in green technology over the next ten years. And while cap and trade may still be the preferred policy mechanism of most environmental groups, new political circumstances demand new tactics. Public investments in green technology are clearly more viable, and climate advocates should embrace them, while remaining vigilant that Obama's climate agenda does not stop with efficiency and green jobs.

The prosperity and security of the United States in the 21st century will depend largely on the course of action set by the nation's new leadership. The scale of our climate challenge is great, and so is the scale of public investment needed to overcome it. The Obama administration and 111th Congress must seize the moment not only to stimulate short-term economic recovery and job creation, but also the long-term technology innovation and deployment that will make clean energy cheap and secure our nation's energy and climate future.

Originally posted to Breakthrough Institute on Tue Jan 06, 2009 at 10:10 AM PST.


Should Obama make public investments in research, development, demonstration and deployment of clean energy technologies?

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Comment Preferences

  •  asdf (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    PaulVA, indigoblueskies

    Kind of interesting but I did not find that you made your point very clearly.

    •  What did you find confusing? (0+ / 0-)

      Here's the Cliff Notes version:

      Climate remains an urgent priority.  Cap and trade isn't going anywhere fast in today's economic climate.  If the "alternative" is some short-term green job creation and energy efficiency retrofits, as seems very possible, we'll have some more jobs and save a little energy, but be nowhere near where we need to be to solve the climate crisis.  If, instead, we expand our focus to include a major effort to rapidly develop and deploy clean, affordable and massively scalable energy technologies, we'll have a viable alternative to cap and trade.  

      Jesse Jenkins
      Breakthrough Institute

      •  Cap and Trade (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        homo neurotic, EthrDemon

        is not going to work.  It rewards polluters and keeps them in business by buying credits.

        We need a straight carbon tax.

        And, for my money, the best overall energy investment right now is efficiency.  If we don't use energy efficiently, it will cost us 4 or 5 times more to produce green alternatives than it needs to.

        So, yes, start with green jobs by bringing efficiency way up.  Once a building is efficient, then it's time to load up the renewables;  but, not before.

        Help new teachers to grow and love their work at

        by Mi Corazon on Tue Jan 06, 2009 at 10:57:41 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Did that really happen? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    and Canadians rejecting the Liberal Party's proposed carbon tax in their October election.

    From reading the internets while the election was happening, that pretty much seemed like a non-issue . . . (i.e., the Liberals pretty much totally sucked for other reasons)

    •  Yup, as far as I've read... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Roadbed Guy

      that was the take at the UK Telegraph and of analysis at Grist.

      Jesse Jenkins
      Breakthrough Institute

      •  Thanks for the links . . (0+ / 0-)

        although they tend to contradict each other (the UK link supports your premise, the other one says the focus of the election shifted away from environmental issues, more or less rendering the Liberal prosition moot . . .).

        In any event, I followed the election in Bill O'Reilly's favorite Canadian newspaper, the Far Left Globe and Mail (sister paper to the WSJ, for whatever that's worth) and this issue rarely came up in their election coverage.

        •  Yes, shifted from enviro to economy (0+ / 0-)

          They don't contradict each other.  The point is that the Liberals started their campaign with a plan to run on climate change and their carbon tax.  They picked the former enviro minister as their leader and centered their platform around the Green Shift policy.  Polling in those days showed Canadian's top priority was global warming, so that made some sense.  Then the economy tanked, Canadians forget about their climate concerns, and the Liberals floundered, dragged down by their inability to sell their platform as an economic winner.

          •  My point is that the public didn't *reject* (0+ / 0-)

            the Liberals environment concerns per se, as the diary asserts, it was simply that these issues became moot as other issues became more pressing.

            •  It was worse than that (0+ / 0-)

              They didn't just become moot, they became a liability.  With a platform centered around climate and the environment and an enviro minister as their leader, it was easy for Harper to pin the Liberals as out of touch with the economic concerns of Canadians, while his conservatives knew that the economy had to come first.  That's how Grist's reporting tells it anyway:

              "The economy is the overriding issue. It's the No. 1 concern here. Voters see what's happening in the States, and they are worried about layoffs here," said Bob Hepburn, a columnist for the Toronto Star.

              "The Liberals are making the environment their No. 1 issue. But Harper just keeps saying, 'It's a tax, it's a tax.'"


              Harper, who came from Canada's oil-flush Alberta province to lead the Conservatives to power in February 2006, has been scathing in his criticism. When the "Green Shift" was unveiled last summer, Harper called it "crazy economics" that would "screw everybody across the country." This month, he warned it would "wreak havoc on the economy" and could pull Canada apart.

    •  Since the Conservatives did not win a majority .. (0+ / 0-)

      ... even of seats, let alone popular vote, and the New Democrats would be closer to the Liberals than to the Conservatives on the issue, that would seem to be an odd way of adding up the votes.

      The Conservatives may have used it as a successful issue in some ridings, but it was certainly not enough success to gain a clear Parliamentary majority.

      •  The Liberals lost 18 seats though... (0+ / 0-)

        and Harper's Conservatives picked up 17 (based on this WashPo story).  I'm admittedly not an expert on Canadian politics, but I don't see why I shouldn't see that as a big loss for Liberals, especially when they had hoped to secure a big enough swing to oust Harper and win a majority.  

        •  Sure its a big loss for the Liberals ... (0+ / 0-)

          ... but pinning big losses for the Liberals on issues rather than on their structural decline is stretching a fairly long bow. "Your gasket is shot and you're burning oil, and I think if you didn't take that short cut you might get better fuel efficiency".

          •  You got it. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            The Liberals' fortunes in the most recent election was predetermined a long time before the "Green Shift" became policy.  As you said, they've been in decline a while.

            On top of that, they're effectively broke.  The NDP aren't much better off.  The Conservatives are flush and have used their financial advantage as much as they can, within the law.  And without it, too.  Yet still, despite trying to bury the Opposition in money, the Cons have only managed to fight progressives to an effective draw at the polls -- twice.

            I wouldn't pin the election loss solely on the Green Shift.  As another commenter noted, the Liberals, NDP and Bloc - three parties with fairly strong environmental platforms - managed upwards of 60% of the vote and a majority of seats in Parliament.  The national Green Party, too, managed its best results ever, winning nearly a million votes - despite not winning a seat, that's still fairly respectable.

            ... Where is Baldwin?
            ... Où est Lafontaine?

            by Wisewood on Tue Jan 06, 2009 at 05:06:35 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  Green technology R&D as economic stimulus (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Frankly, I'm surprised this hasn't been included in discussions of the economic stimulus package.  This was classic stuff during the Clinton administration and would have been implemented by Gore.

    Its classic FDR New Deal policy - an accelerated R&D program to develop better "green" technology and alternative energy.  Ramping up a program like this could provide better alternatives than cap and trade, etc.

    R&D at every level of the US economic base, whether energy, manufacturing, agriculture, medicaine, etc. will produce jobs short term, provide careers and incentives for careers in science and build a platform for an advanced economy.

    The question isn't "should we do it?", but "why aren't we doing it?"

    There's an innate tendency on the part of even the elite to idolize men who are making a lot of money, and assume that they know what they're doing. PK

    by Betty Pinson on Tue Jan 06, 2009 at 10:27:42 AM PST

    •  R&D yes, but also the other two Ds (0+ / 0-)

      We definitely need an R&D investment, and as you said, the question really isn't "should we do it?" it's "why aren't we."  And hopefully we will.  But when it comes to energy technology innovation and the climate crisis, focusing on R&D alone isn't enough.  We need to support rapid innovation and diffusion along all stages of the innovation pipeline: R&D, yes, but also demonstration and deployment of emerging technologies.  RDD&D.

  •  I'm not even sure I like 'cap and trade' (0+ / 0-)

    Unless you mean there's going to be a set cap for the country as a whole, and any trading is within that limit.

    Otherwise, you could infinitely expand pollution simply by spinning off 'new businesses' as separate entities.

    If, instead, every time a new plant comes online, EVERYBODY's limits go down enough to offset the addition of that business, then you've got a cap and trade system that works as far as actually limiting pollution.

    Sadly, cap and trade still fails by allowing the concentrated pollution of areas where a company is willing to buy those trading rights to pollute.

    How about just 'cap', and skip the trade?

    Hi. If I quit replying to your comments, I've either A) left the thread, B) felt it didn't require a reply, or C) decided you're an idiot. You choose.

    by drbloodaxe on Tue Jan 06, 2009 at 10:33:33 AM PST

  •  Could the NREL be like the NIH? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    And give out grants and such?  I ask because while R&D stimulus is a good idea, in practice it can be very tricky, because you can spread out the money thinly to a lot of potential projects, hoping for a strike.  Or you can concentrate the money to what SEEMS most promising, but effectively picks winners.

    I am not saying it can't be done, it is just that with that much money it requires a very robust infrastructure and administrative framework to make it as effective as possible.

    Personally, I think creating more efficent and cost effective energy storage solutions is the most promising aven ue of research.  It can help make solar and wind, especially, more cost competitive.  It aids in grid reliability, reduces transmission costs and lowers the need for expenisve an not as clean backup generation.

    They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. -Benjamin Franklin

    by Gangster Octopus on Tue Jan 06, 2009 at 10:43:49 AM PST

  •  Government investment in green energy (0+ / 0-)

    to bring the price of it down is a very good idea.  Cap & Trade on the other hand is a horrible idea.  Afterall, all your doing is inflating the price of every American's energy needs so they can stomach overpriced green energy.  It is a much wiser decision to wait on green energy until it can truly compete price wise/functionality wise/etc with carbon energy.

  •  Short-term investments (0+ / 0-)

    By its nature, a stimulus that will act quickly involves short-term investments because a lot of the longer term investments are neither ready-to-go nor at the point of putting a lot of folks back to work.

    I don't think that anyone from the transition team has said that the stimulus package is all that Obama will do regarding infrastructure, including a clean energy infrastructure.

    All it will take for cap and trade to work in this economy is to set the cap low enough that companies will have an incentive to start investing in green technology and cleaning up their act.  Then don't relax the cap as the economy is restored to prosperity, at which point the infrastructure may be available to permit fairly rapid lowering of the cap.

    The carbon tax is a non-starter for a variety of reasons; it's unpopular (the three-letter word); it's less effective than cap and trade; it is difficult to apply universally.  

    The first step is to alter the way the gasoline tax is collected without raising the tax.  You do that by setting the tax as a percentage of the price of gasoline at the pump.  As the price of gasoline increases, the tax amplifies that increase.  The rate could be set to deliver the current number of cents of tax; that would not be raising taxes at all.

    Effective cap-and-trade (which means that the cap must be adjusted downward as fast as practicable) will effectively tax industrial coal-burners, such as coal-fired electrical generation.

    •  That would be raising the current gas tax (0+ / 0-)

      because the current number of cents per gallon that comprises the current gas tax is static as gas prices increase.  Changing that to a "percentage of the gas price" would mean that in actual cents per gallon, the gas tax would increase as the price of gas goes up.  So, if (A) the gas tax is 0.18 per gallon right now and pre-tax gas costs 1.00 per gallon, that's not the same as saying (B) we're creating an 18% tax on the 1.00 pre-tax price of each gallon.

      When the gas price goes to 1.50, in tax scenario A (the current structure of our gas tax), the price of gas would be (1.50 + 0.18 tax) 1.68, whereas in scenario B, the price of gas would be 1.77 (1.50 + (18% of 1.50) or 0.27).

      On November 5, 2008, history was made.

      by Prince Georges for Obama on Tue Jan 06, 2009 at 11:35:55 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  But if gas prices went down (0+ / 0-)

        It would be cutting taxes.

        Setting at the current level neither raises nor lowers the tax. absent changes in the price of gas.

        No one accuses legislators who do nothing when the prices of goods goes up of raising taxes.

        What the current system does is make sure that gasoline tax revenues never move with the price of asphalt, for one thing.  Therefore, years of refusing to raise the gas tax in the midst of rising gas prices results in budgets that cannot keep roads repaired.

        •  That's disingenous because (0+ / 0-)

          Gas prices in a normal economy are likely to be much higher than they are now, so it would be more likely an increase in the current gas tax than any decrease.  Why not set the rate at what the current gas tax comprised of the cost of gas when it was 4.00+ a gallon?

          On November 5, 2008, history was made.

          by Prince Georges for Obama on Tue Jan 06, 2009 at 12:13:33 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Not a slam dunk (0+ / 0-)

            Gas prices might not be higher in a normal economy because the supply and demand is not as easy to predict when there will be flight to fuel-efficient vehicles.

            Also, oil producers might overshoot supply producing and unintended glut.

            And for those who move to more fuel-efficient vehicles, total tank prices might decrease over the last period of normality.

            For those who take advantage of improved transit infrastructure, annual gas expenditures might decrease.

            Setting the rate at the proportion of the current gas tax when the price was at its maximum is not a bad idea.  You get a near tax cut immediately and for as long as gas is below that previous maximum level.

    •  No, by its nature a stimulus involves ... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ... relatively short, quick investment projects ... whether they are for long term gain or not depends on the what kind of projects money is made available for, as I note at the Midnight Oil.

      Take, for instance, stimulus funding to finance the acquisition (MLW) of hybrid electric / high efficiency, low emission diesel buses and hybrid electric / natural gas buses ... that could be done in several tranches, with money available to transit systems based on total route miles per system, and untapped money available in a second round ...

      ... that would be quick, easily "breaking ground" in the current year and completing within two ...

      ... but the operating cost savings and protection from the next oil price shock would be a long term benefit from the stimulus.

  •  Flawed assumption (0+ / 0-)

    Obama's stimulus plan is only the beginning, not the end, of what he'll do in regards to investment in the green economy.  His long term plans for the green economy include the very kinds of investments in green technologies you're referring to and also include creating incentives to counter the existing higher cost of lower carbon alternatives, like plug in hybrids.

    On November 5, 2008, history was made.

    by Prince Georges for Obama on Tue Jan 06, 2009 at 11:25:16 AM PST

    •  We're not assuming Obama will fail to invest... (0+ / 0-)

      but we're not yet confident he recognizes the scale and type of investments in clean energy necessary to truly overcome our interconnected energy and climate challenges (as we wrote in the piece above).  We recognize that stimulus has to focus on investments that have economic impacts in the short-term, but as we wrote yesterday, investments that also set our nation up for long-term growth and productivity improvements should be prioritized.  Furthermore, while Obama has pledged to invest $15 billion per year in clean energy, experts agree it's far from sufficient to rapidly develop and deploy the affordable, massively scalable clean energy technologies we need to transform the US and global energy system.  

      So we're being cautious here, and encouraging everyone else to be as well.  I certainly hope that Obama's "green stimulus" will only be the beginning, that he will prioritize investments that lay the ground-work for clean energy innovation and the deployment of clean energy technologies. Outside of the stimulus, I hope he'll redouble - or more accurately, retriple his commitment to invest in clean energy - putting forward at least $50 billion a year for clean energy RDD&D.  But all of that isn't a given, and we assume it will be at our own peril.

  •  confused goals lead to confused policies (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    There are at least four  goals I have heard for investing in "green" right there is the problem.

    1. We will pay more for energy in the future: If that was such a certainty then I am certain that the free market would figure that out and make the investments of their own volition. The fact that they are not is that it is not certain at least not to the point where it would justify an investment.
    1. National security- importing so much oil overseas places us at risk. Of all the arguments this probably makes the most sense
    1. Do it for global warming. This is probably the weakest argument. There is nothing that the United States can do alone or even with Europe that can prevent global warming unless India and China are willing to be part of the deal. They show no desire to do so. Until they do so we should be planning on dealing with the consequences of Global warming- a big high wall in the South and good escape routes into Canada would be a good place to start.
    1. Economic stimulus. - I suppose an argument can be made that if you are going to waste money on a bridge to nowhere lets spend some money on this - heck it couldn't be worse than a bridge to nowhere.
    •  We can lead in developing clean, cheap energy (0+ / 0-)

      You write: "Do it for global warming. This is probably the weakest argument. There is nothing that the United States can do alone or even with Europe that can prevent global warming unless India and China are willing to be part of the deal."

      Well, you are certainly right that if we just focus on reducing our own emissions here at home - say by focusing on efficiency and conservation as our main driver of reductions - then we'll do nothing to halt the rise of greenhouse gas emissions globally.  That approach would be sort of like dieting as a strategy to reduce hunger in Africa (to steal a phrase from a colleague).  That's exact why we focus centrally on develop clean and cheap energy sources that can power our economy both here and in the developing world.  If we focus only on increasing the price of dirty energy through carbon prices - carbon prices China and India will never accept - then we may succeed in cutting our emissions at home.  But until we develop low-cost, massively scalable clean energy sources that can be deployed globally, we'll have little hope of staving of global climate change.

      So, the United States should be the leader in clean energy innovation and commit at least $500 billion of the next ten years to the rapid development and deployment of clean energy technologies.  We should also collaborate with Japan, the EU and even China, India and Brazil (who can afford to chip in for this effort) to pool additional resources and collaborate on research and development.  That's a strategy to make clean energy cheap - and abundant - and to halt global warming.

      Jesse Jenkins
      Breakthrough Institute

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