An Inauguration Week Climate Warning — In a New Climate of Hope

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In this presidential inauguration week, climatologist and leading NASA scientist James Hansen has six words of advice for Barack Obama about global warming: America must lead. Now. Or else. From his interview with the Guardian, published on January 18:

"We cannot now afford to put off change any longer. We have to get on a new path within this new administration. We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world. America must take the lead."

The message is not new. But the timing is. It was delivered and received in an atmosphere of hope on the climate issue for the first time ever in America.

After years of federal climate inaction and even denial, we can now assume that dire climate warnings will no longer fall on deaf ears in Washington; that America will seize the reigns of global energy and climate leadership; and that maybe the worse won’t happen.

We can even see that the nation’s needed transition to a clean energy economy has already begun. Have a look at the past few weeks for evidence.

On January 3, Obama pledged to double renewable energy in three years. To jump-start his commitment, he promised a significant clean energy component in the final economic stimulus.

Congress, remarkably, is going along with him.

On January 15, House Democrats released the details of their $825 billion economic stimulus package, tentatively called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. (The House report of the bill can be found here, see chart on page 27 for key energy allocations. Full bill is here).

The 258-page bill is complete with substantial funding — $54 billion — for new US-based clean energy and efficiency technologies, on top of billions more for special transportation projects. That’s 6.5 percent of the act’s total proposed spending and tax cuts — and about a third of the $150 billion that Obama has pledged to allocate to clean energy over ten years. The breakdown of energy funds follows this post. Here’s a summary from the Committee on Appropriations:

Clean, Efficient, American Energy: To put people back to work today and reduce our dependence on foreign oil tomorrow, the bill strengthens efforts directed at doubling renewable energy production and renovates public buildings to make them more energy efficient.

  • $32 billion to transform the nation’s energy transmission, distribution, and production systems by allowing for a smarter and better grid and focusing investment in renewable technology.
  • $16 billion to repair public housing and make key energy efficiency retrofits.
  • $6 billion to weatherize modest-income homes.

(Note: Three powerful House committees — Appropriations, Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce — are expected to mark up the stimulus this week. The US Senate is developing its own version of the bill. The Congressional leadership wants a final plan in the president’s hands in less than a month.)

Notably, last week also saw Steven Chu — America’s next energy secretary — firing off this warning at his Senate confirmation hearing (transcript):

"It is now clear that if we continue on our current path, we run the risk of dramatic, disruptive changes to our climate system in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren."

Meanwhile, soon-to-be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the nation during her confirmation hearing (transcript) that:

President-elect Obama has said America must be a leader in developing and implementing a global and coordinated effort to climate change. We will participate in the upcoming UN Copenhagen climate conference and a global energy forum and will pursue an energy policy that reduces our carbon emissions while reducing our dependence on foreign oil and gas, fighting climate change and enhancing our economic and energy security.

And Lisa P. Jackson, chosen to head the EPA, said in her hearing (transcript) that she would administer the EPA administer with "science as [her] guide," and affirmed that "reducing greenhouse-gas emissions" was a key EPA objective for Obama.

Obama himself strategically touted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 at an Ohio plant that manufactures bolts for wind turbine towers.  There he pledged (transcript) an American jobs revolution "that starts with new, clean sources of energy." In response, Sierra Club Executive Director so rightly said:

"Barack Obama ran on the strongest environmental platform in history, has assembled a phenomenal team of energy and environmental advisers, and has now proposed an economic recovery package that represents a sizable down payment on his promise to rebuild America’s economy and bring the clean energy future to life."

In sum: What a difference an election makes.

When you think about it, it’s astounding. Dr. James Hansen’s repeated warnings on the dangers of catastrophic climate change have gone virtually unanswered since he began to publicly air them two decades ago in his legendary 1988 Congressional testimony. That’s due to Washington’s obedience to business as usual. And it could end today, changing US energy policy — and American politics — for a generation or more.

Debate will rage in environmental circles about whether President Obama is going far enough, and no doubt he’ll be pummeled at times by the very groups and pundits who today are his biggest supporters.

But for now, the key point is: It really is a new climate in America. 

UPDATE: In his inaugural address (transcript), President Obama, the 44th president of America, proclaimed:

Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet. 

The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do. 

With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.



American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, House Bill

Breakdown of Energy Funds, via Earth2Tech:

  • $11 billion for R&D, pilot projects, and federal matching funds for smart grid program
  • $8 billion for Renewable Energy Loan Guarantees
  • $6.7 billion for renovations of federal buildings largely focused on energy efficiency
  • $2 billion for research for clean power and energy efficiency awarded on a competitive basis to universities, companies, and national laboratories.
  • $2 billion for advanced battery loans and grants
  • $6.9 billion for state and local governments to make investments in energy efficient and carbon reductions
  • $2.5 billion for energy efficiency for HUD-sponsored low-income housing
  • $1.5 billion for grants for efficiency for school districts, higher education, local governments, and municipal utilities
  • $300 million for rebates for Energy Star appliances
  • $600 million to replace federal government vehicles with alternative fuel cars
  • $200 million for grant program for electric vehicles
  • $2.4 billion for carbon capture and sequestration demonstration programs.
  • $350 million for research for clean power for weapons systems and military bases
  • $400 million for alternative vehicles for state and local governments buses and trucks
  • $500 million for industrial energy efficiency
  • $300 million for grants and loans for local governments to reduce diesel emissions

See Also:

Barack Obama: A SolveClimate Profile

James Hansen’s Letter to Obama

Censoring Science: Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming

James Hansen on How Science Works

Hansen: A Scientist with a Sense of Humor

Censorship of Science & America’s PR Culture of Lying