Obama Administration Tacking on Climate Change Strategy

It’s been three days since the State of the Union, and while myriad pundits have already weighed in on the substance (the President averaged a C+) and style (B) of the address, a key issue that was once a campaign promise has evaporated into the cold Washington night: climate change policy.

Mr. Obama did indeed propose an ambitious agenda of driving clean energy innovation forward with the right mix of public/private partnerships and incentives. And we learned Tuesday night that the administration plans to ensure that the US will derive 80% of its electricity needs from “clean energy sources” by 2035. The newly integrated parties followed with equally choreographed applause.

But, while the president emphasized themes of innovation and education in the energy space, he did so without any reference to the social and environmental risks posed by global warming. In a speech that lasted a little more than an hour, the word energy appeared nine times, with both clean and  renewable each making single appearances.

The words climate and warming did not appear in the State of the Union at all.

With the the failure of the cap and trade legislation and the sudden announcement that Carol Browner — the White House coordinator for energy and climate change policy — will depart, the Obama administration is in the process of making a course correction, or at least a message modification, on climate change.

Of course, the political climate in the House  will not be favorable for progress on climate policy over the next two years. So, it makes sense that a centrist president would punt on a policy that has insufficient political capital to be passed.

However, something else seems to be happening: the development of a third way. There’s another constituency in the climate change space that believes that energy security and economic development are the key motivational pillars for climate change reform. These stakeholders — corporate CSR executives, buccaneers like T. Boone Pickens and the producers of the forthcoming film “Carbon Nation” — emphasize using technology to essentially win the energy race.

Environmental NGOs often feel uncomfortable with these folks since they tend to undervalue the environmental risks of global warming. But it’s clear a majority of Americans, while concerned about climate change,  have little incentive or ability to make any change to mitigate the problem.

The White House wants to be seen as winners on energy innovation (aka climate change) and not necessarily limit environmental policy to the “purview of Birkenstock-wearing tree huggers.”

We won’t know the results of this course correction for some time, but there’s no doubt it’s driven by a desire for a second term.

Image credit by phylomithus under a CC license via Flickr

Written by Lane Jost

A lifelong conservationist, angler, gardener and writer, Lane is a Corporate Responsibility strategy consultant based in Chicago, where he currently works a CR consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Prior to joining PwC, Lane was a global sustainability performance and stakeholder engagement specialist for Sodexo North America. He has experience in microfinance program evaluation at Grameen Foundation. A former President of the Net Impact Chapter at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Lane has a master's in International Development Economics from the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UCSD (IR/PS) and a bachelor's in history and international studies from Kenyon College. Prior to working in the sustainable business sphere, Lane spent six years as a communications and marketing professional focusing on arts and culture in New York City, where his work included the creation of the jazz website and serving as the publicist for the New York Philharmonic.


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