What does Obama mean by “Sustainable Energy”?


“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” President Obama said in his second Inaugural Address on January 21.  “But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.” What is the President thinking of when he uses the term “sustainable energy”? Does he think it’s compatible with his current “all of the above” energy policy, or will he acknowledge the contradiction and the need to re-frame his approach?

The relevant text from the Inaugural Address:

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.  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.  We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.  That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks.  That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.  That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

Back in 1989 — one year after global warming first became a high-profile policy issue in Washington — I co-authored with Chris Flavin at the Worldwatch Institute a report titled Sustainable Energy. So when a U.S. president finally says “sustainable energy” in an inaugural address the words jump out at me.

Our report connected human-caused climate change to the imperative for a sustainable energy transition. It focused on recent developments in the development of renewable energy and high-efficiency energy end-use technologies. It served as a kind of primer and update after eight years of the Reagan presidency, which was hardly known for its support of renewable energy.

We did not include energy production from fossil fuels or nuclear power in our discussion of ‘sustainable energy’ alternatives, though of course it was understood that a transition would have to take place over a period of time. Climate change called for new thinking about how to expedite the transition.

President Obama and his administration have been talking in terms of their ‘all of the above’ energy strategy. They have talked about what they are doing to promote increased production of oil (including offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean and deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico). They talk about the importance of increasing production of natural gas using hydrofracking technology. They talk about supporting development of ‘clean coal’ and continue to allow mountaintop removal coal mining. They are seriously considering granting a permit for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada. And so forth. During the 2012 election campaign, they touted their ‘all of the above’ approach without talking about climate change as a driver for a U.S. energy strategy.

The way the Administration has presented it, ‘all of the above’ is not compatible with a serious strategy to deal with the threat of global climatic disruption. It’s not compatible because it has not been framed in terms of expediting a phase-out of the fossil-fueled energy system, which is what a serious climate strategy will entail. Now that Obama is making a commitment to “respond to the threat of climate change” and acknowledging that this requires a commitment to a “sustainable energy” system, he should be expected to re-frame his Administration’s energy policy to focus on how it is driven by these commitments.

He can’t have it both ways.

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Footnote: As far as I have been able to determine, our 1989 Sustainable Energy report was the first (at least the first aimed at a general readership) that used the term “sustainable energy” in its title. (If you are aware of something earlier, please let me know.) We distributed thousands of copies for free when it was published by the environmental and energy education group Renew America. The report has long been out of print — though I notice today that a third-party bookseller is offering a used copy (“good” condition) on Amazon for a mere $374.98!

Earlier posts:

“We will respond to the threat of climate change” – Looking ahead from the Inaugural Address

White House energy policy talk has ‘all of the above’ except climate change

Still drunk on oil: Obama’s speech in Cushing

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2 Responses to What does Obama mean by “Sustainable Energy”?

  1. Boblo says:

    Don’t hold your breath. Talk is cheap, but the country is temporarily broke. Nothing much will happen in the next three years, and in the fourth OB will be working on his library.

  2. Jessica Shellhorn says:

    There is no question that “sustainable energy” is something that we as a nation should pursue. Ideally, these types of renewable and innovative energy sources should start being immediately implemented into our main grids. However, this would take immense effort and cooperation amongst a diverse group of highly powerful entities within our nation (oil and energy companies for example). A major issue is that unfortunately, these companies have the power and authority to choke out the competition on some of these new types of sources (for instance, the mass-manufacturing of vehicles that are capable of generating a fuel economy at 100 mpg or more at a price that the average consumer can afford—– which by the way is a technology that has existed since the early 50’s).

    But we also tend to focus a mass amount of attention solely on vehicular modes of transit as the major problem, and therefore a viable solution to global climate change. The reality is that even if every vehicle in our nation were to be hybridized or run on nitrogen or bio-fuels, we would still have an issue. Residential single family homes create much more CO2 than do vehicles, and making adaptations to homes to become more ecologically friendly involves much more effort than would purchasing a different type of vehicle, so we sway our attention to the “easiest fix”, which in reality won’t solve the problem and will create a screaming uproar from our corrupt oil companies. Sustainable energy will necessitate a complete paradigm shift in our society as a whole. We need to not just buy a new car that gets better mileage, but also to change the entire way we live our lives. No single change will reverse the damage done. The sad situation is that being “green” isn’t sexy enough for the entire nation to get on board. Incentives come at too high of an up front cost for a small family to afford long enough to reap the benefits, and frankly we do a terrible job at informing our public on the seriousness of the issue and of the many small things we all can do to lend a hand.

    We cannot rely on the government and wait on them to make these decisions before we take action. We all know too well that government action takes entirely too long to implement policies that we need for our livelihood. The difficult part of this argument is that the very fabric our country is built on is consumerism and the “American Dream” and that those ideals conflict with sustainable solutions. It is going to take A LOT more than anything the government can implement or pass as a law or program to make these changes. These changes HAVE TO start grassroots. The president can’t just wave his hand and make all comply. Individual initiative has to be in the forefront.

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