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The President's climate policy should focus on renewable energy R&D

In the past week, we’ve seen President Obama begin to deliver on his State of the Union promise to use his executive power to address the challenges presented by climate change. As Peter Baker and Coral Davenport reported in the New York Times last week, the president:

…ordered the development of tough new fuel standards for the nation’s fleet of heavy-duty trucks as part of what aides say will be an increasingly muscular and unilateral campaign to tackle climate change through the use of the president’s executive power.

Later in the week, the president, seeking to educate the country on the growing threat of climate-induced disasters, included increased federal funding for fighting the wildfires in the West in his proposed budget. President Obama tied this proposal to the need to provide additional funding to FEMA for fighting damage from floods and hurricanes in other parts of the country. The costs of firefighting have been growing. According to Davenport:

In real dollar terms, adjusted for inflation, the Forest Service and Interior Department spent an average of $1.4 billion in annual wildfire protection from 1991 to 1999, according to a report by Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group. But that spending has more than doubled — from 2002 to 2012, the agencies spent an average of $3.5 billion to fight wildfires.

It is obvious that President Obama understands the climate and sustainability crisis facing America and the world. It is equally obvious that he and his team lack the leadership, management and political skills to do much about it

This, along with EPA’s effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new coal-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act, are the “muscular” executive measures that the White House is spinning as the president’s “aggressive” climate policy. I forgot to mention that the president also announced that his new budget would include a $1 billion climate resiliency fund. A billion dollars is such an inadequate level of funding for climate resiliency that I find it astonishing that something so small is even mentioned. Still, with right wing politicos working to delegitimize every policy move made by the president, it is easy to see why these tepid, inadequate policy moves are presented as major initiatives.

It is obvious that President Obama understands the climate and sustainability crisis facing America and the world. It is equally obvious that he and his team lack the leadership, management and political skills to do much about it. There is no question that Obama faces a set of fact-starved, racist and venomous political opponents who make their living by questioning his policies, his legitimacy and even his birthplace. I think that the racism and ideological fervor of some—but by no means all—of his opponents adds a level of intensity to the opposition. President Obama is far from the first president to face vitriol and hatred, however. If you read the press accounts of FDR during the New Deal, of the battles between Bill Clinton and the right-wing or George W. Bush and the left-wing, political attacks on the White House are simply the cost of doing business. FDR was called a “traitor to his class”. The epithets directed at Clinton and Bush were far worse. Presidents are always loved by some and fiercely hated by others. FDR, LBJ and Clinton seemed to be presidents who thrived on political combat.

Obama is clearly a president who once thought he could rise above the political fray. Today, his vision (or perhaps his illusion) of a United States undivided by “red” and “blue” states is long gone. Congress and the political right have defined the political reality in Washington and with it have managed to wish away climate science. They have also tried to wish away evolution, economic facts and the complexity of the global economy. The president, outside of the war on terrorism, has never learned to marshal the political, economic and managerial power of the modern presidency to achieve his policy goals. The White House focus on political maneuvers and “realism” has resulted in an often ineffectual presidency that has never quite lived up to its hope or potential. In the sixth year of his presidency, the single most powerful government official in the world is reduced to announcing a billion dollar allocation for climate resiliency.

The pressure to build his presidency with Washington insiders was exacerbated by the economic meltdown Obama inherited when he came into office. The economy was headed toward a cliff, and there was no time for new folks to learn the job. Obama needed the old hands representing consensus and conventional wisdom. The successful response to that crisis defined the “organizational culture” of his presidency. Perhaps it was inevitable. The economic power exercised in Washington is massive. Once the Supreme Court defined donating political money as a form of free speech, any chance of reducing the political power of economic wealth was eliminated. Any effort to redefine national policy requires the support of those who wield economic power. Today more than ever, money is at the center of American politics.

One could argue that most of the political capital the president possessed when he came into office was spent on the economic recovery and enacting the economic stimulus. The rest was spent on the legislative sausage we came to call Obamacare. By the time he got to climate and sustainability, the political savings bank was broke. While his re-election could have reshuffled the deck and revitalized his presidency, it is clear that it has not.

The “executive-based” climate policy that is now taking shape reminds me of the administration’s “all of the above” energy strategy. It is an unfocused, non-strategic grab bag of disconnected initiatives gathered together in place of an integrated, targeted effort. It’s as if someone held a meeting and said, “Look, we’re doing a lot of stuff that can help mitigate and adapt to climate change. Let’s take inventory, add a little to what we’re doing, and call it a muscular climate policy.”

In the sixth year of his presidency, the single most powerful government official in the world is reduced to announcing a billion dollar allocation for climate resiliency

The Obama Administration is correct in assuming that Congress is incapable of enacting climate legislation, but I think that executive power can be deployed with far more impact than the proposals we are seeing. Here’s what I suggest, Mr. President: Let’s focus the climate effort on the research and development of less expensive and more efficient solar cells and energy storage systems (batteries). First, reallocate a significant chunk of the billions of dollars in the federal research budget in the Departments of Defense, Energy and Interior, along with some of the research funds spent by the National Science Foundation and NASA, and focus those dollars on basic and applied solar energy research. You should appoint a competent, visible, media-savvy and results-oriented manager to run a massive, 1000-day effort to make tangible progress on these technologies. A concentrated effort to focus our scientific and engineering brainpower on this critical issue would provide a visible, tangible and coherent climate mitigation strategy.

Just as the technology of computers, smart phones and the internet came from US government research and development, the technology of renewable energy can come from the same place. I am not arguing that the other initiatives you announced should be stopped, but this one has the potential to be a game changer. It would be easy to understand and worth betting the ranch on. The president’s current “muscular” executive-based climate policy looks a little flabby to me. Let’s replace it with a well-managed, clear, focused and skillfully communicated renewable energy research project.

Steven Cohen is the executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

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