Climate change reduced to a punchline during presidential campaign

01 Climate change reduced to a punchline during presidential campaign

With last night’s final presidential debate come and gone, for the first time in 24 years, climate change was not mentioned during any of the three presidential debates or the vice-presidential debate. While President Obama has made mention of climate change on the campaign trail, republican nominee Mitt Romney joked about climate change during his acceptance speech in Tampa. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans (pause for mocking laughter) and heal the planet. MY promise is to help you and your family.” He would repeat the joke in several campaign stops following the convention. He elicited laughs from crowds when he claimed Obama “famously said he was going to slow the rise of the oceans.” Romney added, “Our promise to you is this: we’re going to help the American people.”

While environmental groups say the president has done more during his term to address climate change than any other president, many of Obama’s green supporters complain the president has failed to make a strong case to the American people for addressing the problem. In fact, some groups are so frustrated by the disappearance of climate change as a campaign issue that they recently launched a website, ClimateSilence.org that argues Romney and Obama have toned down their statements on global warming in a “collective descent toward mute acceptance of global calamity.” Both Obama and Romney seem to be targeting energy issues in their campaigns solely for that of swing state voters in the Rust Belt, not voters in where the cleantech industry is thriving.

In the first debate, Romney claimed that “about half” of the clean-energy companies that received U.S.-backed loans have gone out of business. In truth, 26 companies received loan guarantees, and three (Abound, Beacon and Solyndra) have filed for bankruptcy. He stated at one point that Obama put $90 billion “into solar and wind.” But only $21 billion went for renewable energy projects, “such as the installation of wind turbines and solar panels,” according to a White House document cited by the Romney campaign. Obama has defended his investments in cleantech companies, but has spent most of his time during the debates defending his record on oil and natural gas extraction in the US.

Rob Day of Coral Capital addressed issues surrounding government loan program in an outstanding post on energy policy in the US:

“[T]he Loan Guarantee Program made a mistake extending what was intended to be project finance support into the grey area overlaps of late-stage venture capital. And yes, at a more general level I believe that government staffers are always at a disadvantage in making investment decisions versus relying upon the larger private sector, if assigned the same objectives.

But that’s a pretty limited set of situations. It’s silly to evaluate government “investments” simply on financial returns, because that’s never the primary objective of such programs to begin with. If you disagree with the other objectives (which can include jobs, technological leadership, environmental impact, or simply accelerating learning curve effects on the costs of emerging technologies), see point number one above, but also don’t ignore them when evaluating the effectiveness of clean energy policies. And there are many other aspects of energy policy that have been very successful even from a returns perspective — in fact, within the Loan Guarantee Program’s project finance investments, for instance. 

The conflation of totally different government policy efforts further exacerbates the issue. A lot of the recent failures of government-backed startups have been the result of economic development programs, not clean energy programs.”

Day goes on to explain the need for an energy commission, patterned after the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission that would bring together representatives from big business, entrepreneurs, military, public policy, and former legislators to propose a balanced, coherent and comprehensive energy policy.

President Obama missed a golden opportunity last night to address the issue of climate change as a national security issue. While Romney jokes about rising sea levels, the United States military has aggressively pursued renewable energy sources due to national security concerns (See previous post here). Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff has identified energy and climate change as being among the constraints that “could place the United States at a strategic turning point.” In a speech at Johns Hopkins University Mullen stated:

“In my profession, this is not just about money.  The cost of fossil fuel manifests itself far more profoundly than just a heftier bill at the gas pump. I’m acutely aware of the cost in both blood and treasure of providing energy to our forces in Afghanistan today.  Past headlines of fuel convoys being attacked attest to those vulnerabilities. 

I’m proud to share that the military is responding to this challenge with the sailing of the great green fleet in 2016, to deploying solar power in the field with the marines, to simply insulating roofs of the Army’s overseas deployment structures which will save millions of dollars per month in air conditioning costs. 

When you consider that some estimates of a fully-burdened costs of diesel fuel approach $400 per gallon, and require 1.3 gallons of fuel used per gallon at our most remote forward operating locations in Afghanistan, these savings start to add up. Our collective efforts may even help stem the inherent security issues related to climate change.

Glaciers are melting at a faster rate, causing water supplies to diminish in Asia. Rising sea levels could lead to a mass migration and displacement similar to what we saw in Pakistan’s floods last year.  And other shifts could reduce the arable land needed to feed a growing population in Africa, for example. Scarcity of water, food and space could create not only a humanitarian crisis, but create conditions that could lead to failed states, instability and, potentially, radicalization.” 

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has also stressed the importance of sustainability and climate issues on the international policy agenda. Though using varied energy sources from the U.S. and abroad is important, Clinton said that renewable energy is key to the world’s economic and environmental progress, as well as its security interests:

“Energy is essential to how we will power our economy and manage our environment in the 21st century. We therefore have an interest in promoting new technologies and sources of energy — especially including renewables — to reduce pollution, to diversify the global energy supply, to create jobs, and to address the very real threat of climate change. …

The transformation to cleaner energy is central to reducing the world’s carbon emissions and it is the core of a strong 21st century global economy. The future security and prosperity of our nation and the rest of the world hangs in the balance.

I believe that we’re up to the challenge that we can, working together, secure a better future when it comes to energy supply and energy sustainability, and a future that by meeting those two objectives provides greater dignity and opportunity for all and protects the planet we all share at the same time.”

The cleantech industry remains in limbo as government spending in the form of tax credits and even basic research and development are under constant political attack. While competitors in China, Brazil and others across Europe, Asia, and South America continue to move forward developing new energy technologies and innovative companies with government support. While it is important to recognize that government support of cleantech can and should be phased out as the industry matures, too much has been gained thus far to slam the breaks on such an important sector, not only for job growth at home, but slowing the potential long-term devastating economic effects of climate change. This election is providing a stark choice in the two paths the cleantech industry can take, but the country has been shortchanged by both campaigns by not addressing the key issues at hand.

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