Obama's Climate Omission: Can We Disagree on Climate and Win on Clean Energy?

02/02/2011 02:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This post was originally published at Americans for Energy Leadership.

President Obama's exclusion of "climate change" from the State of the Union, combined with Carol Browner's exit as the administration's top climate adviser, has sparked wide debate across the climate movement. On one hand, many climate advocates are backing the president's strategy. As Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) put it, "He's trying to unify... I think it was very smart of him."

On the other hand, climate advocates like Joe Romm of Climate Progress and David Roberts of Grist are criticizing the president for not using climate change as a central justification for his clean energy proposals.  Unfortunately, even after the collapse of cap and trade legislation, Roberts and other critics continue to follow a type of policy literalism that has undermined environmentalists and climate advocates for years.

The argument goes something like this.  First, Roberts claims that without climate change as the central justification, the case for federal investment in the clean energy industry "is no stronger than the argument for supporting pharmaceuticals, or telecom, or any other industry that's likely to be big in the 21st century." (Roberts wrote partly in response to Norris' article on the rise of "innovation hawks.")

However, as the American Energy Innovation Council and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently explained in their reports, other industries like pharmaceuticals, aerospace, and computer electronics spend far more on research and development than the energy industry, due to a variety of market and non-market barriers.  The underinvestment is dramatic: whereas pharmaceuticals invest about 18.7% of sales in R&D, the U.S. energy industry only invests 0.3%.  The federal government already invests over $30 billion annually in health research, and $80 billion on military R&D, but only $3-5 billion in energy R&D.

Moreover, the current economic challenge from China and other "rising tigers" in clean-tech is clearer than any other industry, and it remains one of the most powerful motivating factors for the U.S. public and policymakers alike (analysts predict the global clean-tech market could surpass $600 billion by 2020). The importance of clean energy technology for the Department of Defense, and for saving the lives of American troops, is creating a new imperative in the defense community. Rising oil prices and instability in the Middle East are simultaneously strengthening the energy security consensus to reduce U.S. reliance on oil. And disasters like Deepwater Horizon and Massey Energy continue to highlight the public health and environmental benefits of reduced fossil fuel consumption.

So much for the argument that only climate change can seriously justify major federal investment in clean energy technology over other industries. The case for expanding these investments for economic competitiveness, national security, and public health reasons is stronger than ever before.  (And beyond domestic concerns, cheaper forms of clean energy can help alleviate the poverty of billions who lack electricity access and already suffer from the vagaries of the climate.)

The second reason Roberts criticizes President Obama is that he believes "the only way that well-worn partisan division can be transcended is through reference to climate change." In another reaction to Obama's decision, Roberts asserts that "telling the truth about climate change is also good politics."

Could it be true that only climate change can transcend partisan divisions? Was the president wrong to appeal to a broader set of public interests to advance clean energy RD&D investment and a portfolio standard? Let's revisit the latest public opinion analysis. In a recent report titled "Little Change in Opinions about Global Warming: Increasing Partisan Divide on Energy Policies," the Pew Research Center concluded:

Views about climate change continue to be sharply divided along party lines... Among Republicans, only 38% agree the earth is warming and just 16% say warming is caused by humans... Just 14% of Republicans say global warming is a very serious problem and 27% view it as a somewhat serious problem; only about a quarter (24%) think it requires immediate action by the government... Among Republican registered voters who agree with the Tea Party, fully 70% do not think there is solid evidence that the average temperature on earth is warming.

No wonder Republican strategists have successfully used climate change as a wedge issue to rally their base and tarnish Democrats.  Even with cap and trade gone, the Republican leadership sees opposition to EPA greenhouse gas emissions authority as a major linchpin of its 2012 election strategy.

How could Roberts and others possibly get the idea that focusing on climate change is good politics in this environment?  Contrary to their assertions, a focus on climate change would only serve to undermine the possibility of clean energy reform, fueling an ever-greater climate war and potentially contributing to another major Democratic defeat in 2012.

Based on this data, the recent collapse of cap and trade, and the current state of climate change politics, we conclude that the president's choice made sense. Although climate change remains extremely divisive, Gallup and Pew polling continues to indicate that federal investment in clean energy technology remains one of the most popular forms of energy policy. These investments will drive down the price of low-carbon energy and pave the way for stronger deployment efforts -- perhaps even including a strong carbon price at some point -- both here and in the developing world, where the vast majority of future emissions will originate.

The question is not whether climate change is an important reason for action on clean energy. That is obvious.  The question is what type of political and policy strategy can successfully expand the national clean energy consensus and begin shifting us in the right direction.  In this context, the role of effective leaders is not just to "speak truth to power," but to bridge our divides to achieve the outcomes we need.

We can agree to disagree on the role of climate and focus on policy achievements in the near and medium term.  Climate change will eventually get its moment in American politics.  Until then, Obama and his administration have outlined a new approach, and climate advocates would be wise to get behind it.