The State of the Union: Jobs, Energy and Climate

03/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steven Cohen Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

I continue to root for Barack Obama. Blunt and tough was just the right tone for his first State of the Union. While I expected him to submerge climate policy within the veneer of energy and employment policy, I was impressed that he addressed it so directly:

I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here's the thing -- even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future -- because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.

I agree with his strategy of brushing off the climate change deniers, but at the same time we need to think hard about a political system that is so reluctant to deal with scientific fact. To put it simply, the world is getting more complicated, and scientific analysis is needed to truly understand and effectively manage this complexity. The idea that a global population of nearly seven billion people does not have any impact on the environment defies common sense. Stand behind a car for an hour and breathe the exhaust and see if you think it has no impact on human biology. Multiply that impact by 260 million, the number of cars on the road in this country alone, and tell me that you really believe that we are not damaging this planet.

Here at Columbia University, we have over 100 doctoral level scholars researching every element of the climate problem at the Earth Institute alone. They are studying and teaching about the causes and impacts of climate change and how to adapt to the change that we all see coming. It is true that we cannot predict the future, and that we do not know the precise impacts that will come from rising global temperatures. But it's also true that we don't know the precise place from which the next terrorist attack will come. Our lack of clairvoyance is no reason to deny facts or avoid formulating public policy.

On January 26th, my colleague and boss, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, convened a meeting of over 100 diplomats, scientists and leaders of non-governmental organizations to discuss post-Copenhagen climate policy. One of the recurring themes of those discussions was the need to do a better job of communicating climate science to the public. Those who are not scientists need to do a better job of translating scientific jargon and analysis for decision-makers and the general public, and those who are scientists need to focus communication efforts on the facts that can truly be demonstrated and understood. The language used by some climate scientists to predict impacts is more certain and less conditional than it needs to be; we simply do not understand the full environmental impact of the high-throughput global economy that we live in. We need not pretend to fully understand it to mitigate the most obvious problems we are creating. Climate change is one of those problems. Biodiversity loss is another. A shortage of fresh drinking water is still another. The degradation of the planet's biosphere is a fact that we do not necessarily have to fully understand, but one we unquestionably need to learn to manage.

President Obama demonstrated during his State of the Union address that he understands these fundamentals. He also understands that, politically, he needs to turn his focus to growing the American economy and creating more job opportunities. It makes good strategic sense for him to link environmental protection to the development of a sustainable, and successful, green economy. Given the EPA's move to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act, I expect that in the short run a key element of American climate policy will be good old fashioned command-and-control regulation. Political realities suggest that we may have to give up on the idea of linking that policy to the sort of comprehensive attack on the climate problem we saw in the Waxman-Markey and Boxer-Kerry bills, at least for now.

If that is the case, and we defer a comprehensive climate law, we will clear the deck for a renewable energy and energy efficiency bill: a bill that funds research on renewable energy and provides financing and subsidies for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. A program focused on green energy would create employment while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gases. With EPA regulating emissions and a jobs program focused on energy infrastructure, we could empower local governments and the private sector to move forward on the transition to a green energy economy. This would undoubtedly contribute to our global competitiveness by reducing the proportion of our gross domestic product spent on energy.