Obama’s energy policy

“CHANGE WE NEED” said the banners. Change we need indeed, and change we will get. But how much?

As interested as I was in the drama of election campaign, I’m just as interested in what happens next. The question is – how large is the gap between ideals and reality? Grand ideas, grand oratory is easy. Making things work is hard. The Hollywood ending is so ingrained in the American psyche that it is hard to imagine that Obama could fail to live up to his bold words, and to the hopes of so many people, both inside America and around the world. We’ll find out soon enough.

In keeping with one of the main themes of this blog, I have been looking at Obama’s energy policy.

In general, my impression is that ideas are right. One of the interesting aspects is the way it has been framed. European-style energy policies tend to have three pillars – conservation, efficiency and renewable sources (or, you prefer the more populist language of the London Plan, “be lean, be clean, be green”).

In the American context, that doesn’t fly. Similar end goals in both candidate’s energy policy are framed as something quite different – energy independence; or, in typical parochial terms, independence from “foreign oil”, as if the stuff is automatically evil because it comes from that most un-American of places – the Middle East. Specifically:

“Eliminate Our Current [oil] Imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within 10 Years”

This is apparently a more palatable sentiment for the electorate than “We will reduce our oil consumption by 35%”. Still, however it is framed, the idea is the right one. The problem was perfectly framed by the world’s favourite environmentalist, George W. Bush, in 2006 – “America is addicted to oil.” Whatever you might think of Dubbya’s legacy, he has, at least, given us that phrase – an excellent metaphor for the developed world’s seemingly unbreakable dependence on fossil fuels. This is no small challenge, and one of the most difficult and important aspects of Obama’s transformational agenda.

The next category in Obama’s energy policy his pledge on climate change:

“Reduce our Greenhouse Gas Emissions 80 Percent by 2050”

It’s is a bold, courageous aspiration. Or is it? 2050 is a long way off – ten and a half presidential terms, to be precise. Obama himself probably won’t be around to see it. For me, these kinds of goals are frankly quite meaningless. Things are changing so fast now, that the world of 2050 will probably be a very different place. Of course we must keep in mind the long-term future of our society when we plan our current actions, but to have such a specific goal that far in the future strikes me as the stuff of science fiction.

I have a feeling that in 2050, our descendants will think it rather strange that they should be measuring their current situation against a reference point that belongs in the history books (or whatever the electronic or post-electronic equivalent will be). By then, the physical reality of our climate system will either have condemned us or rendered our scientists Chicken Little fools – more likely the former.

His next campaign pledge is far more immediate:

“Provide Short-term Relief to American Families”

Translation: tax the hell out of the oil companies. Gordon Brown didn’t have the guts, Kevin Rudd wouldn’t dream of it, so we’ll see what kind of precedent Obama can set. Good luck getting it through Congress, Democratically controlled or otherwise. And finally:

“Create Millions of New Green Jobs”

Five million to be precise. This promise is really about building the renewable energy industry, along with other technology-based jobs in energy efficiency and clean coal. Early indications are that this will be at the top of his list of priorities – few politicians have the stomach to talk about deep emissions cuts in today’s economic climate.

Of all the great things that can be said about Obama’s presidental campaign, there is one thing he did not do very well at all, and that is managing expectations. He has an incredible job ahead of him. Good luck to him, and good luck to that country we too often love to hate.


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