Obama versus Obama: Comparing his energy and climate change statements

Obama announced an ambitious energy plan this week. The plan seeks to reduce carbon emissions by 32% by 2030, with a 2005 baseline. It can easily be described as the single most important event in energy politics and environmental politics in quite a while. The plan however, did not fall from the sky. It is the result of 2 years of arduous work by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is also the materialization of Obama’s intentions with regard to climate change, which he presented back in June 2013 (video, transcript).

How similar or how different is Obama’s new plan against the original roadmap that he provided in 2013? In a nutshell, the answer is ‘very similar’. There are however, some aspects that are worth a closer look.

Copy/Paste: Energy as central concern

In 2013 Obama declared the following:

This plan begins with cutting carbon pollution by changing the way we use energy — using less dirty energy, using more clean energy, wasting less energy throughout our economy.

Obama’ Clean Power Plan focuses in reducing emissions throughout the United States. Enough said.

Same: Climate change a’la Chicago (Cost/Benefit Logic)

Both of his interventions are clearly grounded on the cost that climate change is having. Not tomorrow, but today.

He left this clear in 2013 by justifying action on the basis of the cost that climate change has for human activity. For example, the fact that albeit it was not the direct cause, the additional foot in New York’s sea level “certainly contributed to the destruction”.

To leave no doubt about it, the 2015 Clean Power Plan speech departs from an authoritative summarization of some of the most important costs brought about by global warming:

The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security… we’ve seen stronger storms, deeper droughts, longer wildfire seasons.  Charleston and Miami now flood at high tide. Shrinking ice caps forced National Geographic to make the biggest change in its atlas since the Soviet Union broke apart… nationwide asthma rates have more than doubled, and climate change puts those Americans at greater risk of landing in the hospital.

Similar: Genuine belief in sustainable development

Let’s make one thing clear. Obama is NOT saying he is going to become a full-blown environmentalist for the sake of the environment alone. He did not say that in 2013 and, although much more environmentally oriented, he did not say that in 2015.

Both statements focus in improving the nexus made by the economy, society, and the environment. He makes this particularly clear in his 2015 statement, where he comes back with an economic argument to the most important criticisms likely to arise. Just to give two examples:

They will claim that this plan will cost you money — even though this plan, the analysis shows, will ultimately save the average American nearly $85 a year on their energy bills.

They’ll claim this plan will kill jobs — even though our transition to a cleaner energy economy has the solar industry, to just name one example, creating jobs 10 times faster than the rest of the economy.

It is important to consider that despite of his belief in sustainable development there is NOTHING to think that Obama will go further than what is economically feasible. Say, for example, to move directly against fracking or nuclear power, such as many environmentalists would like him to do.

Slightly different: Normative management of uncertainty

Whilst not being unaware of the economy, Obama does seem to be working on a more normative framework in his latest speech. As noted, he will not ban “harmful” activities as many environmentalists would like. That would be a full blown normative framework. However, compared to 2013, Obama seems to be leaning toward a more conservative approach to risk management.

In 2013 the argument came down to a rational balance: a lot of climate change is very bad, it would be ideal to avoid climate change as a whole but this is probably too expensive; hence, some amount of climate change seems to be the rational solution. One interpretation that could be done from this is that there is not such a thing as “too little, too late”. Without any further considerations, the objective would be to reduce the level of the challenge to be faced by future generations inasmuch as economically feasible.

Obama argues against this interpretation in his 2015 speech:

This is one of those rare issues — because of its magnitude, because of its scope — that if we don’t get it right we may not be able to reverse, and we may not be able to adapt sufficiently.  There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change.

This is not the same as a call for normative environmentalism but it hints toward a shift from a techno-rational management of risk and uncertainty to one that ensures that we get it right.

Huh? OK, let’s try again.

From the business-as-usual perspective, if environmental impacts are uncertain short term economic gains tend to have the winning hand. This has been one of the strongest arguments against tackling climate change. No-one knows exactly what the consequences of climate change will be. Climate skeptics compare this to lack of evidence, which protects the status quo. What Obama is now saying is that it is our duty to get it right for future generations. This means that if we are going to make a mistake, it better be on the safe side.

Hence, whilst Obama does not seem to be interested in going as far as banning activities that environmentalists would love to have banned, he is certainly being more normative about the management of uncertainty. There is no second chance. Ergo, taking too much risk is wrong.

Hinted but ultimately omitted: A global green economy

The bulk of Obama’s words in 2013 referred to the energy sector. However, it seemed back then that the final intention was to use a strong green energy sector as cornerstone for leading a global green economy.

Obama does remind us of that goal in his recent speech. He even goes to the extent of declaring that the US has the opportunity to lead the world in Paris’ Climate Change Conference (COP21), to be held this December. But that’s more or less all he says about the topic.

This is understandable given that the 2015 speech was directly about the Clean Power Plan and the 2013 statement referred to the entirety of climate change. The problem here is that nobody knows how to develop a low carbon economy and as such it is impossible to foresee the way in which Obama plans to link the energy agenda with everything else.

In 2013, Obama did not say much about the mechanisms he intends to use either. However, there were a couple more hints about it.

The trading of clean energy solutions was definitely amongst the hopes laid out in the 2013 speech. In fact, Obama even declared back then that he will help the private sector to provide know-how to countries that undertake a transition to natural gas. It helps a lot that the US is going through a natural gas revolution and wants to sell gas to the world. Will this be US’ pitch in Paris?

The 2013 speech also seemed to be open about the inclusion of goods and services beyond energy, as long as they can be considered clean. What is interesting in this sense is that no details were given on what else, besides energy tech, can be considered “clean”.

Image credits: Coal at work. Patrick Emerson via Flickr (Unmodified). License: CC BY-ND 2.0.