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Obama Offers Hope for Climate Bill

Speaking at MIT, Obama countered recent statements from his administration that climate legislation is bogged down.
October 23, 2009

In a speech today at MIT, President Barack Obama called for optimism in addressing climate-change issues, saying that rapid progress is being made on a climate bill in Congress. His remarks, delivered to a crowd of students, professors, venture capitalists, and local politicians, came after one key Obama administration official recently said that legislation is unlikely to pass before a major international climate treaty meeting in Copenhagen this December.

Obama came short of assigning a date for the passage of the bill, but he called attention to the fact that a portion of the bill has already passed out of committee on its way to the Senate floor. He said that efforts to support clean energy through February’s stimulus bill and other legislation “must culminate in legislation to make renewable energy the profitable form of energy” in this country. The climate bill could do this in two ways: by offering direct incentives and subsidies to clean energy, and by putting a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, which would make fossil fuels more expensive.

Earlier this month, Carol Browner, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency and a top Obama energy and climate advisor, said that the climate legislation will likely not be passed before the Copenhagen meeting. That could make it difficult for any major climate-change agreement to come out of that meeting, as other countries look for evidence that the United States is taking the issue seriously.

At MIT, Obama met with researchers developing various clean-energy technologies, including lightweight batteries that can be “grown” using viruses; windows that generate electricity from the sun; more efficient lighting; and offshore wind turbines that generate electricity even when there is no wind. Although he didn’t specify how this last technology works, it could be related to MIT research into developing wind turbines that store energy by pumping water, or that generate electricity from ocean waves. Obama also described a new wind-turbine blade testing facility in Massachusetts capable of evaluating blades that are about the length of a football field.

The speech redirected attention toward energy issues that dominated the agenda earlier this year but were upstaged by efforts to develop and pass a health-care reform bill.

The Senate recently took up negotiations for its version of a climate and energy bill; the House passed its version in June. Meanwhile, Congress recently passed a funding bill for the Department of Energy that included large increases for renewable energy and for improving the electricity grid. The bill also funded three of eight proposed Energy Innovation Hubs designed to spur basic research toward applications that would solve various energy problems. The hubs were funded at $22 million for nuclear-energy modeling and simulation, fuel production from sunlight, and energy-efficient building system design.

Obama said that climate-change skeptics are being moved to the margins, but that a “more dangerous” problem is the myth “that there’s little or nothing we can do–it’s pessimism.” Recently, policy analysts including David Victor, director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University, have pointed out that climate-change policy is inherently difficult for governments for a number of reasons. For example, it requires international cooperation between countries with different interests and requires governments to make sacrifices now when the potential benefits are distant. Victor also notes that many political systems, including the one in the United States, are purposely designed not to produce policy unless there is wide agreement.

Obama specifically referred to some of these points, saying that some people believe the political system is broken or that people are unwilling to make tough choices. But he called on the “American spirit” of innovation and exploration to overcome such problems.

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