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Obama Argues for Action on Climate Change

The State of the Union address highlighted the problem but fell short on solutions.
February 13, 2013

President Obama spoke forcefully about climate change in his State of the Union Address tonight. In last year’s address he barely mentioned it, but this year he laid out a brief argument that climate change is happening and that something should be done about it. Many groups have called for the president to make an argument on this issue rather than either not talking about it at all or mentioning it only in passing, as he’s done for the last couple of years (see “Obama Still Needs to Make the Case for Dealing with Climate Change”).

But some of Obama’s specific policy ideas for addressing climate change don’t make sense.

Here’s his brief argument, copied from his prepared remarks:

Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods—all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science—and act before it is too late.

Obama asked Congress to pass a “market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.” That had been cap-and-trade legislation. But he said that if Congress didn’t act, he would find “executive actions” that he could take without Congress to “reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

He also called for increased investments in energy R&D:

Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race. And today, no area holds more promise than our investments in American energy.

A White House document released just before the speech provided more details about the president’s plan. One of the provisions is a bad idea, and another is worse.

The bad idea is making the Production Tax Credit for renewable energy permanent. This credit strongly favors existing technologies, and existing technologies aren’t cheap enough to replace fossil fuels on a large scale (see “Will Federal Policy Help Wind Compete with Fossil Fuels?”). In general, permanent subisidies aren’t a good idea. They should be phased out according to a predictable schedule. It might also make sense to revise the PTC to promote advanced technologies.

The idea of promoting a transition to vehicles that run on natural gas is worse. That produces no benefit in terms of climate change, and depending on the emissions associated with the production and distribution of natural gas, it might even be worse in the short term than burning oil (see “Measuring the Climate Impact of Natural Gas”).

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