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President Obama Reaffirms his Commitment to Clean Energy in his State of the Union Address

Obama pushes an agenda of clean energy at his State of the Union AddressPresident Obama showed courageous leadership by supporting clean energy in his state of the union address.  Prior to the President’s state of the union address, a Think Progress Green article encouraged the President to stir “this country to action on the existential threat of climate change.”  Mr. Obama may have only mentioned climate change once, but his unqualified support for clean energy was consistent with the kind of mobilization required to protect “our homeland from a poisoned climate.”

The President’s desire to expand exploitation of offshore oil reserves and natural gas from shale may be disappointing but it is entirely understandable in the current political climate.

While it is easy to blame Obama for not being strong enough on efforts to combat climate change, the blame actually lies with Republicans. The fossil fuel powered Republican denial machine has done a great job of misinforming the American electorate, making it impossible to address the topic, let alone fight for legislation. The President acknowledged the impossibility of passing climate legislation when he said,

“The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change. But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation.”

Riley E. Dunlap, a sociology professor at Oklahoma State, and Aaron M. McCright of Michigan State have written a chapter for the new Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, called, “Organized Climate Change Denial.”  In their chapter of the book, they say:

“It is reasonable to conclude that climate change denial campaigns in the U.S. have played a crucial role in blocking domestic legislation and contributing to the U.S. becoming an impediment to international policy-making…We have argued that because of the perceived threat posed by climate change to their interests, actors in the denial machine have strived to undermine scientific evidence documenting its reality and seriousness.  Over the past two decades they have engaged in an escalating assault on climate science and scientists, and in recent years on core scientific practices, institutions and knowledge.  Their success in these efforts not only threatens our capacity to understand and monitor human-induced ecological disruptions from the local to global levels (Hanson 2010), but it also weakens an essential component of societal reflexivity when the need for the latter is greater than ever.”

The scientific basis for climate change has been around for decades and yet as economist-ethicist Clive Hamilton explains, “The desire to disbelieve deepens as the scale of the threat grows.”

It would appear climate denial is a defining feature of the GOP. This is a point made convincingly in an Oct 10, 2010 Climate Progress article by Joe Romm.  “Indeed, it is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here.”

Even denialists, like Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post‘s Editorial Page Editor, have published op-ed pieces accusing the GOP of being “lost in never-never land,” on climate change.

In light of Republican denialist propaganda, President Obama’s speech is truly remarkable. He repeatedly stated his support for clean energy technology. One of his most powerful arguments concerned the effectiveness of public-private collaborations.

“In three years, our partnership with the private sector has already positioned America to be the world’s leading manufacturer of high-tech batteries. Because of federal investments, renewable energy use has nearly doubled. And thousands of Americans have jobs because of it”.

He also unapologetically addressed his critics when he talked about government support for clean technologies and America’s international competitiveness. It was as though he was referring directly to the failed solar company Solyndra, when the President said,

“Some technologies don’t pan out; some companies fail. But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy. I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here.”

He went on to tackle the complex issue of subsidies, asking Congress to remove oil subsidies and replace them with subsidies for clean energy.

“We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough. It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that’s rarely been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that’s never been more promising. Pass clean energy tax credits and create these jobs. We can also spur energy innovation with new incentives.”

Dealing squarely with Republican obstructionism the President said,

“So far, you haven’t acted. Well tonight, I will. I’m directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes. And I’m proud to announce that the Department of Defense, the world’s largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history – with the Navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year.”

The President also dealt with the issue of energy efficiency, talking specifically about an energy grid that “wastes too much energy,” and encouraging greener building for businesses.

“Of course, the easiest way to save money is to waste less energy. So here’s another proposal: Help manufacturers eliminate energy waste in their factories and give businesses incentives to upgrade their buildings. Their energy bills will be $100 billion lower over the next decade, and America will have less pollution, more manufacturing, and more jobs for construction workers who need them. Send me a bill that creates these jobs.”

The President concluded by indicating that he is committed to reducing mercury pollution and making sure that “our food is safe and water is clean.” He also stated that he wants to hold the oil companies accountable.

“I will not back down from making sure an oil company can contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago.”

What makes the 2012 speech so noteworthy is the fact that the President mentioned “clean energy” eight times.  Over the course of the last few years the tone of the state of the union address has changed dramatically. In 2009, the President spoke forcefully about the need to address climate change, then he softened his approach in 2010 and in 2011, he fell silent on the issue.

Despite opposition from the GOP, President Obama appears to be determined to fight for clean energy in the forthcoming federal election.

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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

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