When it comes to dealing with the world’s climate and energy challenges I have a simple rule: change America, change the world.
If America raises its clean energy standards, not only will others follow - others who have hid behind our inaction - we'll also stimulate our industry to invent more of the clean air, clean power and energy efficiency systems, and move them down the cost curve faster, so U.S. companies will be leaders in this next great global industry and American consumers will be the first to benefit. That is why the new Environmental Protection Agency rules President Obama proposed last week to curb carbon emissions from power plants are so pivotal.
You can’t make power systems greener without making them smarter - smarter materials, software or design. One new ruling will not change the world - and we have to be careful that this one doesn’t replace our addiction to coal with an addiction to natural gas alone. But coming at a time when clean energy technologies are becoming more competitive, and when awareness of climate change is becoming more pervasive, this EPA ruling should give a real boost to clean power and efficiency innovation and make our country more resilient, healthy, secure - and respected.
Several weeks ago, as he was drawing up these new emission rules, I interviewed Obama in the White House library about climate and energy. Following are highlights. (The interview is also featured in the final episode of Showtime’s climate series, “Years of Living Dangerously” airing Monday.)
For starters, Obama is aware that we can’t just keep burning oil, coal and gas until they run out. As the International Energy Agency warned, “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050” - unless carbon capture and storage technology is widely deployed - otherwise we'll bust through the limit of a 2 degree Celsius rise in average temperature that climate scientists believe will unleash truly disruptive ice melt, sea level rise and weather extremes. The rest has to stay in the ground, and we need to steadily find cleaner alternatives and more energy efficiency. I asked Obama if he agreed with that analysis.
“Science is science,” he said. “And there is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that’s in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire.”
So we can’t burn it all?
“We’re not going to be able to burn it all. Over the course of the next several decades, we’re going to have to build a ramp from how we currently use energy to where we need to use energy. And we’re not going to suddenly turn off a switch and suddenly we’re no longer using fossil fuels, but we have to use this time wisely, so that you have a tapering off of fossil fuels replaced by clean energy sources that are not releasing carbon. … But I very much believe in keeping that 2 1 / 8degree 3 / 8 Celsius target as a goal.”
If that is so, your environmental supporters wonder why you keep touting how much we’re still exploring for oil, coal and natural gas?
“We have got to meet folks where they are,” said Obama. “We’ve gone through, obviously, in the last five years, a tough economic crisis. … I don’t always lead with the climate change issue because if you right now are worried about whether you’ve got a job or if you can pay the bills, the first thing you want to hear is how do I meet the immediate problem? One of the hardest things in politics is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away. What we’ve tried to do is continually find ways in which we can make progress, recognizing that we’re not immediately going to get people to abandon the old gas-guzzler” because “they can’t afford an electric car.”
Every morning you get a security briefing from the intelligence community on global threats; do you now also get the same on environmental threats?
“I do,” said Obama. Science adviser “John Holdren typically makes presentations when there are new findings,” and his reports show that environmental stresses are now impacting both foreign and domestic policy. For instance, wildfires are now “consuming a larger and larger portion of the Department of Interior budget. And if we continue to fund fighting fires the same way we’ve done in the past, all the money for everything else - for conservation, for maintenance of forests - all that money gets used up.”
But the area he’s just as worried about, said Obama, “is how climate change could end up having profound national security implications in poorer countries. We’re obviously concerned about drought in California or hurricanes and floods along our coastlines and the possibility of more powerful storms or more severe droughts. All of those things are bread-and-butter issues that touch on American families. But when you start seeing how these shifts can displace people - entire countries can be finding themselves unable to feed themselves and the potential incidence of conflict that arises out of that - that gets your attention. There’s a reason why in the quadrennial defense review - 1 / 8which 3 / 8 the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff work on - identified climate change as one of our most significant national security problems. It’s not just the actual disasters that might arise, it is the accumulating stresses that are placed on a lot of different countries and the possibility of war, conflict, refugees, displacement that arise from a changing climate.”
Syria couldn’t manage a four-year drought when it had a government, and that drought helped fuel the uprising there, because the government did nothing for the people. Imagine what will happen if they have another prolonged drought and they’ve destroyed half their country?
“Which gives you a sense of what happens in a lot of these countries that are just barely hanging on,” said Obama. “They don’t have a lot of margin for error, and that has national security implications. When people are hungry, when people are displaced, when there are a lot of young people, particularly young men, who are drifting without prospects for the future, the fertility of the soil for terrorism ends up being significant. And it can have an impact on us.”
What is the one thing you would still like to see us do to address climate change? Said Obama: put a price on carbon.
The way we’ve solved previous problems, like acid rain, he noted, “was that we said: ‘We’re going to charge you if you’re releasing this stuff into the atmosphere, but we’re going to let you figure out - with the marketplace and with the technology'” how best to mitigate it. But “you can’t keep dumping it out in the atmosphere and making everybody else pay for it. So if there’s one thing I would like to see, it’d be for us to be able to price the cost of carbon emissions. … We’ve obviously seen resistance from the Republican side of the aisle on that. And out of fairness, there’s some Democrats who’ve been concerned about it as well, because regionally they’re very reliant on heavy industry and old-power plants. … I still believe, though, that the more we can show the price of inaction - that billions and potentially trillions of dollars are going to be lost because we do not do something about it - ultimately leads us to be able to say, ‘Let’s go ahead and help the marketplace discourage this kind of activity.’”
Where does natural gas fit in?
After all, it can be a blessing and a curse. Natural gas emits only half the carbon dioxide of coal when burned, but if methane leaks when oil companies extract it from the ground in a sloppy manner - methane is far more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide - it can wipe out all the advantages of natural gas over coal.
Natural gas, the president said, “is a useful bridge” to span “where we are right now and where we hope to be - where we’ve got entirely clean energy economies based around the world.” Environmentalists, he added, “are right, though, to be concerned if it’s done badly, then you end up having methane gas emitted. And we know how to do it properly. But right now what we’ve got to do is make sure that there are industry standards that everybody is observing.” That doesn’t “necessarily mean that it has to be a national law,” he said. “You could have a series of states working together - and, hopefully, industry working together - to make sure that the extraction of natural gas is done safely.”
Do you ever want to just go off on the climate deniers in Congress?
“Yeah, absolutely,” the president said with a laugh. “Look, it’s frustrating when the science is in front of us. … We can argue about how. But let’s not argue about what’s going on. The science is compelling. … The baseline fact of climate change is not something we can afford to deny. And if you profess leadership in this country at this moment in our history, then you’ve got to recognize this is going to be one of the most significant long-term challenges, if not the most significant long-term challenge, that this country faces and that the planet faces. The good news is that the public may get out ahead of some of their politicians” - as people start to see the cost of cleaning up for hurricanes like Sandy or the drought in California - and when “those start multiplying, then people start thinking, ‘You know what? We’re going to reward politicians who talk to us honestly and seriously about this problem.’”
The president added: “The person who I consider to be the greatest president of all time, Abraham Lincoln, was pretty consistent in saying, ‘With public opinion there’s nothing I cannot do, and without public opinion there’s nothing I can get done,' and so part of my job over these next 2 1 / 2years and beyond is trying to shift public opinion. And the way to shift public opinion is to really focus in on the fact that if we do nothing our kids are going to be worse off.”
The trick, I argued, is to find that fine line between making people feel the problem is urgent, but not insoluble so they just say: If the end is nigh, let’s party.
“The most important thing is to guard against cynicism,” responded the president. “I want to make sure that everybody who’s been watching this program or listening to this interview doesn’t start concluding that, well, we’re all doomed, there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s a lot we can do about it. It’s not going to happen as fast or as smoothly or as elegantly as we like, but, if we are persistent, we will make progress.”