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State of the Union: More Investments in Clean Energy, Less Carbon Pollution

Extreme weather events

SOURCE: AP/Loren Holmes, Carlos Osorio

In this combination photo, Doug Hamrick, left, shovels snow off of his family's roof in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday, January 12, 2012, and Katie Cramer, right, looks over the front of her destroyed house in Dexter, Michigan, on Friday, March 16, 2012, after a tornado touched down on Thursday night.

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In the first State of the Union address of his second term, President Barack Obama promised last night to protect all Americans—as well as future generations of Americans—by investing in clean energy and climate policies that will both protect public health and contribute to America’s economic resurgence. He forcefully declared:

I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. … I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

This direction to federal agencies will empower them to devise measures under existing laws that achieve essential reductions in carbon pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, can establish a carbon-pollution standard for existing power plants under the Clean Air Act. This would shrink the largest source of domestic carbon pollution, as power plants are responsible for one-third of all climate change pollution in America. According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States is already halfway to its goal of reducing carbon pollution by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. A carbon-pollution standard for existing power plants could get us three-quarters of the way toward this goal.

In addition, federal agencies, led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, can work together to assist communities with their efforts to become more resilient to climate-related extreme weather. This weather includes the floods, storms, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires that scientists tell us will become more frequent and/or severe as the atmosphere chokes on carbon and other climate pollutants.

President Obama reminded his audience last night that recent extreme weather has taken a huge toll on our nation and our economy, and it increases the urgency to act:

The fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods—all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science—and act before it’s too late.

In 2011 and 2012 there were 25 extreme weather events that caused at least $1 billion in damage. Together, these events took 1,107 lives and caused a total of up to $188 billion in damages. This is an unsustainable toll on our lives and our livelihoods.

The State of the Union address also included other valuable proposals to expand investments in clean energy technologies, reduce pollution, and create jobs.

  • Double the deployment of wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewable electricity generation by 2020. This would occur by the making the “renewable energy production tax credit permanent and refundable.” Making it refundable enables smaller companies without much tax liability to benefit from the tax credits that encourage larger companies to invest in wind energy projects. This proposal is similar to the Treasury Cash Grant Program (section 1603) of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which expired in 2011. The program allowed the investment tax credit—a tax credit for businesses that make investments in renewable energy technology or generation—to be converted to an equivalent cash grant for companies that lacked adequate tax liability to employ the existing tax credit. It was an enormous success, attracting approximately $22 billion in private-sector investment in support of more than 22,000 renewable energy projects in all 50 states, and creating tens of thousands of jobs.
  • Increase investment in nonoil-fueled vehicles and their refueling infrastructure, particularly electric cars and natural-gas-powered trucks. More clean alternative-fuel vehicles would reduce pollution, create jobs, and make people less dependent on gasoline, which is prone to price spikes because it is tied to the world oil price and therefore affected by political instability and speculation. Americans bought more alternative-fuel vehicles in 2012 than in 2011. Motor Trend magazine reported that the first plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, “the Chevrolet Volt … saw sales leap 206 percent from just 7671 units in its difficult first year on the market to a respectable 23,461 cars in 2012.” The Volt’s fuel economy is rated at 94 miles per gallon, but some owners report getting even better mileage.
  • Save families and businesses money through lower utility bills by encouraging states to develop energy-efficiency plans in a “race to the top” program. This proposal would provide resources for the most effective state policies to cut energy waste. These policies could include adopting more efficient building codes, improving grid transmission efficiency, and providing financing tools for efficiency retrofits for buildings.

These three proposals will require congressional approval. Hopefully, leaders in Congress will work with the administration to make these vital investments a reality.

Small businesses would also benefit from reductions in climate change pollution and these proposals to invest in clean energy and reduce pollution. The Small Business Majority praised the proposals, noting that its “polling found 87 percent of small business owners believe improving innovation and energy efficiency are highly effective ways to increase prosperity for small businesses.”

Carol M. Browner, CAP Distinguished Senior Fellow and former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, noted that this agenda continues the progress made during President Obama’s first term:

Tonight’s speech is a big win for those who want action on climate change and believe now is the time to act. The president was clear about the magnitude of the challenge and resolute in his determination to use his executive authority to take action, especially if Congress won’t. He pledged to build on the achievements of his first term, including historic standards for clean cars and energy efficiency, and he laid down a strong marker that he intends to continue investments in clean energy technology as part of our economic recovery.

The League of Conservation Voters just released a nationwide survey that found widespread public support for “the President taking significant steps to address climate change now,” including “62 percent of Independents and 38 percent of Republicans.” The Benenson Strategy Group, the pollster, concluded that, “Support remains strong even in the face of opposition attacks” or arguments.

With the support of the American people—and hopefully Congress—the Obama administration can continue to reduce the carbon pollution responsible for climate change, while at the same time increasing our nation’s energy independence.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress.

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