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Obama Still Needs to Make the Case for Dealing with Climate Change

Let’s stop pretending that clean energy innovation will completely offset the economic costs of abandoning fossil fuels.
January 22, 2013

President Obama highlighted climate change in his inauguration speech, raising the profile of an issue that had faded into the background during the second half of his first term. But he’s still making an argument that’s disingenuous, linking the challenge of climate change and shifting from fossil fuels to economic development (see “Dear Mr. President: Time to Deal with Climate Change”).

To be sure, innovations in clean energy can be a boon to the economy. But serious action on climate change will be costly. If it’s undertaken, it must be based on the calculation that the costs incurred now and over the next few decades to limit climate change will be lower than the costs of climate change itself.

Obama said that “the path toward sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” but the truth is more stark—it will be extremely difficult, and it might not be possible without accepting some level of slowed economic development (see “Solving Global Warming Will Require Far Greater Cuts than Thought”). Modern civilization, and the remarkable progress in living conditions around the world, especially over the last few decades, is only possible because of cheap fossil fuels. Humans were poor when all we had were renewable sources of energy, when we burned wood for heat and cooking and powered mills with running water. (A billion or so poor people still struggle without modern energy.) While solar and wind technology have made incredible progress, the technologies are still not a cost-effective replacement for the baseload power needed to run a modern economy—particularly at the large scales needed to completely replace fossil fuels. Sources like nuclear are also more expensive than fossil fuel power, and quickly ramping up nuclear power comes with risks.

Getting sustainable energy technologies to the point that they can replace fossil fuels will require breakthroughs—not just cheaper, more efficient solar panels, but also far cheaper means of storing energy for when the sun isn’t shining –and a sustained commitment to bringing new technologies to market. And that will require hefty government investment in R&D—and in creating incentives to switch from fossil fuels.

Let’s have a speech from President Obama focused on climate change. I want to hear him lay out the numbers and describe the scenarios that have led him to believe climate change must be dealt with. How much could climate change cost (see our Q&A with Nicholas Stern)? How much is it reasonable to spend to avoid those costs, given the uncertainty around just how the planet will respond to increased levels of carbon dioxide? The case has to be made that it’s worth it if we’re going to make the investments needed to give up fossil fuels.