Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Climate Change vs Energy

As public discussion of climate change has become increasingly polarized, the Obama administration's rhetoric has shifted from a discussion of 'climate' to a focus on 'energy.'

This trend is documented in a recent study, Running from Climate Change: The Obama Administration’s Changing Rhetoric.

The always interesting Max Boycoff weighs in on these observations with A dangerous shift in Obama’s ‘climate change’ rhetoric.
But what do we lose when global warming and climate change get repackaged as clean energy? We wind up missing a thorough understanding of the breadth of the problem and the range of possible solutions.

To start, talking only about clean energy omits critical biological and physical factors that contribute to the warming climate. “Clean energy” doesn’t call to mind the ways we use the land and how the environment is changing. Where in the term is the notion of the climate pollution that results from clear-cutting Amazon rain forests? What about methane release in the Arctic, where global warming is exposing new areas of soil in the permafrost?

“Clean energy” also neatly bypasses any idea that we might need to curb our consumption. If the energy is clean, after all, why worry about how much we’re using — or how unequal the access to energy sources might be?
And terms such as “carbon pollution” ignore that climate change isn’t just a carbon issue. Some greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide, do not contain carbon, and not all carbon-containing emissions, such as carbon monoxide, trap heat.

When the president moves away from talking about climate change and talks more generally about energy, as he did in the State of the Union, calling for “an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy,” the impact is more than just political.

Calling climate change by another name creates limits of its own. The way we talk about the problem affects how we deal with it. And though some new wording may deflect political heat, it can’t alter the fact that, “climate change” or not, the climate is changing.
True enough, but this appears to be another example of Obama's 'don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good' philosophy. Convinced, realistically, that the current chances of getting the Congress to act on climate change are essentially zero, he's opted for a frame that could, potentially, lead to legislation. The operative question is to whether "clean energy policy" remains that, or becomes simply "energy policy." If it becomes the latter, with its unrelenting emphasis on ways to maintain the current fossil fuel fixation, then any incremental advantage to the climate issue will have been lost. And, as described in the recent Wired article Why the Clean Tech Boom Went Bust, keeping the clean in energy policy will not be easy.

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