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In Defense of Obama's Dirty Energy Rhetoric

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(This is the third in a three-part series -- part one, part two -- but it summarizes the others, so you can probably skip 'em.)

Obama is stuck in a peculiar political moment. In substantive terms, he knows that our dire climate and energy situation requires huge and possibly wrenching changes to drive the country away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy and efficiency. He has proposed climate and energy plans that, while short of what will ultimately be necessary, are substantially more ambitious than any in presidential history, more ambitious than even some of his supporters seem to realize.

To provide moderate cover for that green agenda, and as part of the attempt to flip a few key red states, Obama is dropping all kinds of dirty-energy buzzwords. But a close look at the language he uses reveals that his support for things like nuclear and "clean coal" is framed in conditional terms that, if taken seriously, pose high and possibly insuperable barriers to those technologies becoming market competitive.

If you oppose nuclear power because it cannot solve the problems of "public right-to-know, security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation" in a cost-effective way, then there's no reason to object to a politician saying he'll support nuclear if and only if it can solve those problems. Based on what you believe, that's tantamount to opposition.

The key gambit is to focus on performance standards -- results -- rather than joining any tribe or cheering any team. The empirical, pragmatic approach is substantively correct and keeps Obama out of the culture-war fights over individual technologies. It has environmentalists attacking him from the left, which serves to make him look more moderate to the rest of the political world. It has given him plausible deniability in the face of Republican attacks -- their "Dr. No" gambit didn't stick. It has given him an "all of the above" pitch that appeals to low-information voters. Meanwhile he's planning to implement strong emission standards and make hundreds of billions in green investments.

Pretty damn savvy, if you ask me.

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