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Obama’s State of Union will likely hit on a number of energy policy themes: climate change, promotion of offshore drilling, clean energy. The President’s statements on climate change were previewed in his January 21 inaugural address, when he declared “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it.”

The 2007 Supreme Court ruled the EPA must regulate greenhouse gasses under its existing Clean Air Act authority if it finds a scientific basis that such emissions pose a danger to public health. This summer, a Republican-led federal appeals court ruled that the EPAs compilation of the science of climate change was overwhelming and compelling, thereby requiring the Agency to act.

Obama has already used this authority to implement ground-breaking greenhouse gas emission rules for cars and trucks, and has proposed rules for new power plants that rule out the construction of conventional coal power plants. Tonight’s State of the Union will likely propose new rules over existing power plants.

And this is where Southern’s $100,000 contribution to Obama’s 2013 Inaguaration may become a factor. Southern Co was the only utility to make a contribution.  Obama’s climate change rules for cars were developed with auto industry support – previewing a framework for how rules over existing power plants may play out. In 2009 Obama was content to let the House take the lead in putting together climate rules to ensure there’d be shared responsibility among the legislative & executive branches on economy-wide legislation that was sure to be controversial in some circles. While Obama quickly abandoned succeeding Senate efforts to draft a companion bill after concluding that the cap ‘n trade approach was too politically risky, Obama pivoted in his 2011 SOTU around a clean energy standard that promoted nuclear and natural gas that had very similar emissions reduction targets as the Waxman Markey bill.

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climate change in the presidential debate on foreign policyThe final presidential debate on Monday will focus on foreign policy. Among the topics that are sure to come up: the war in Afghanistan, the conflict between Israel and Iran, the changing landscape in the Middle East and new terrorist threats, and the rise of China on the world stage.

But what is less clear is whether the moderator, Bob Schieffer will press the candidates on the national security threat that has yet be addressed: climate change.

The Defense Department in a 2010 report called climate change a prominent military vulnerability and an “accelerant of instability and conflict.” The report identifies climate change and energy as two key issues, “that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment.” The report notes that “climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.”

Thus far, both the debate moderators and candidates have been skirting around the issue, discussing energy issues repeatedly without mention of climate change. This prompted Chris Hayes of MSNBC to compare the silence on climate change during the energy portion of the debate to “discussing smoking without discussing cancer.”

And town hall moderator Candy Crowley, during CNN’s post-debate coverage, explained that time constraints prevented her from getting to climate change, saying, “I had that question for all of you climate change people. We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing so you knew you kind of wanted to go with the economy.”

Dismissing the effect that climate change has our economy is one thing, but excluding climate change from a debate on foreign policy, effectively ignores U.S. military planners’ warnings that climate change poses massive threats to global security. Ignoring it does an enormous disservice to Americans and all those “climate change people” like:

  • Navy Secretary Ray Mabus – “Our responsibilities, our concerns, have to be tied into the effects of climate change” and;
  • U.S. ally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel – “A failure to take action against climate change will have dreadful consequences for the whole world” and;
  • Nobel Prize-winning scientist Mario Molina – “It’s important that people are doing more than just hearing about global warming. People may be feeling it, experiencing the impact on food prices, getting a glimpse of what everyday life may be like in the future, unless we as a society take action.”

But so far, instead of heeding the pleas of our own military, world leaders and a Nobel prize-winning scientist, we’ve had to watch our presidential candidates vie for the hand of the fossil fuel industry to see who gets to be the next Mr. Coal.  The energy-focused portions of the previous debates have been like watching a bad episode of the Bachelorette. The good news is, it’s not too late to call the wedding off.  The final debate offers a chance for the candidates to renounce this destructive relationship and address how they are going to use their position as a global leader to reduce carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere and manage the already clear and present climate change threats.

But again, that opportunity will present itself only if the moderator also acknowledges climate change as a national security threat, as has been widely acknowledged.

In addition to the 2010 report, an October 2011 report by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense’s Defense Science Board task force warns that failure to anticipate and mitigate these changes in climate patterns, “increases the threat of more failed states with the instabilities and potential for conflict inherent in such failures.”

Recent events like the droughts that affected almost 61 percent of the lower 48 states this summer, the raging wildfires in the northwest and new government data that suggests show that the Arctic sea ice could be gone by the end of this decade clearly demonstrate the domestic challenges we face as a result of unmitigated climate change, but addressing these issues is going to take a global effort with strong leadership from the president of the United States.

So, if discussing domestic energy without mentioning climate change is like “discussing smoking without discussing cancer,” then discussing foreign policy without discussing climate change is like, well, discussing foreign policy without discussing climate change.

Public Citizen’s petition urging Bob Schieffer to ask the presidential candidates to tell us their plans to address climate change.

Photo courtesy of NASA commons


The following is a repost of my National Journal Energy Experts blog

Electricity policy faces enormous challenges—three different federal agencies (EPA, DOE, FERC) and 10 Congressional committees wrestle with oversight over electricity markets, new generation sources, air and water emissions issues, and energy efficiency initiatives. Resolving the current political stalemate requires an acknowledgement that maximizing investment in a decentralized electricity structure has to be a significant part of policy going forward. And we must recognize that while constitutional rights within our Democratic Republic often clash with companies’ need for efficiency, preserving those rights must be our priority.

Not only are capital cost barriers of proposed new nuclear and coal-fired units significant, but so are the associated transmission infrastructure upgrades needed to move the power from new sources to population centers. Trying to build any new type of large infrastructure system designed to accommodate our centralized power system has traditionally run into NIMBY opposition, which lately has been characterized as Not on Planet Earth (NOPE). Population density in the US has increased 105% from 1950 to 2010—from 42.6 people per square mile in 1950 to 87.4 people per square mile in 2010. With more people living per square mile than ever before, Americans’ Fifth Amendment Constitutional right to due process guarantees that large projects will continue to be delayed. Congress’ unwillingness to grant the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ultimate authority over transmission siting leaves permitting at the state level, where property owners will continue to hold sway over project developers. Meanwhile, the plummeting cost of solar photovoltaics, advances in micro-wind turbines, and continued permitting successes of geothermal are providing more opportunities for distributed renewable energy generation. It’s more efficient to site millions of rooftop solar systems than permit just a handful of new coal/nuclear stations with hundreds of miles of needed transmission.

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I recently appeared on CNBC to discuss problems associated with exporting natural gas. Despite the numerous problems domestic fracking poses to the environment, the process remains lightly regulated. I’ve noted that natural gas is really displacing wind and solar, and that exporting the gas (by freezing it to turn it into a liquid, known as LNG) will lead to higher prices domestically. Those seeking to export LNG claim it can globalize prices, but I find that unlikely to happen.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on twitter @tysonslocum


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