Jonathan Chait

Obama's Speech

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The portion of the speech detailing the government's response to the Deepwater Horizon spill seemed effective, as did his explanation of his plan to toughen regulations on offshore drilling. The important part of his speech concerned how we would wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. This portion revealed just how much Obama is operating from a position of weakness.

The public does not understand scientific evidence about the effects of carbon dioxide emissions. So instead Obama is forced to construct an argument for reducing those emissions that bears little relation to the actual merits:

For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked – not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.

The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.

None of these arguments touch upon the central point, which is that dumping carbon into the atmosphere creates enormous long-term environmental risks.

Then, when Obama turned to the question of how to address energy going forward, he offered up this:

When I was a candidate for this office, I laid out a set of principles that would move our country towards energy independence. Last year, the House of Representatives acted on these principles by passing a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill – a bill that finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America's businesses.

Now, there are costs associated with this transition. And some believe we can't afford those costs right now. I say we can't afford not to change how we produce and use energy – because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater.

So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party – as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development – and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development.

All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fear hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction.

Basically, he's saying he just wants some kind of bill. His standards are very low. I can't necessarily blame him -- the votes aren't there in the Senate and he can't conjure them up. He needs something that at least begins the process of transitioning to a clean energy economy. But with the public uninterested in climate change, interest groups mostly advocating for the status quo, and moderate Democrats unwilling to take another tough vote, he's not going to get much.

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