Obama Ducks and Covers on Climate

The “C-word,” climate, appears to have become to the Beltway what  the “P-word,” population, has been in climate treaty negotiations for a long time — unmentionable.

It’s one thing to cave to a wave of naysaying climate rhetoric and build a new American energy conversation on points of agreement rather than clear ideological flash points like global warming.

It’s another to duck and cover entirely on climate, as President Obama did in his State of the Union message. (Mind you, climate hawks shouldn’t feel too personally dissed; keep in mind that Obama didn’t mention any of the many other reasons for expanding the cleaner energy menu — including reducing dependence on Middle Eastern oil — either.)

One approach to bringing up climate could have been to build on the broader message of civil discourse reflected in the way lawmakers seated themselves. He could have nodded to the  deep divisions over climate science and policies, but noted that much of the sense of controversy has come mainly because the hottest messages –  unfolding catastrophe, manufactured hoax — get the most air time. This obscures the climate basics that provide one of the many reasons to push hard and long on advancing non-fossil energy sources. That was  Richard Smalley’s wise approach.

Still, this address was almost entirely about the economy, and innovation, so I can understand avoiding a digression on climate — as long as the broad case for an energy quest is built by the president in weeks and months to come. At a Washington meeting last spring on adapting to climate change, Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, said that he expected “a major speech” on climate from Obama down the line. This year, if the president doesn’t engage with voters on  America’s Climate Choices, his campaign pledge to have science treated with integrity will appear awfully hollow.

Obama’s address was appropriately focused on building a new sustained era of American prosperity using a mix of austerity and smartly targeted long-term investments in education and science.

He discussed, appropriately, the need for a short-term strategy in which all existing sources play a role — from wind turbines and nuclear reactors to  natural gas and — yes — coal (although I still feel he and Congress are biasing federal research and development money far too much toward coal interests through spending on  capturing CO2 from power plants).

He spoke inspiringly of the country’s energy innovation imperative last night. It was great to see the Department of Energy’s  Innovation Hubs singled out for more support.

Obama clearly picked up on bipartisan interest in eliminating distorting energy subsidies, but sadly targeted only oil subsidies in seeking the billions he wants for research and innovation.

A bias toward punishing the oil industry, leaving out the huge bonbons handed out to big coal and biofuels, is bound to stir up a fight rather than resolve one. That’s one reason that some “green” subsidies would need to go, as well.

His summary point on this being a new “Sputnik moment” raises some interesting questions (particularly its focus on building the energy quest as an us-versus-them race). Several reactions to that message can be found below.

There’s a heap of analysis and reaction around the Web. [2:27 p.m. | Updated The National Journal has posted a revealing roundup o views on the speech from veteran oil lobbyists and environmental campaigners to libertarians and young energy campaigners.] I particularly liked Bryan Walsh’s riff at Time Magazine. What themes and gaps inspired, or exasperated, you?

Here are a few parting thoughts from people with useful perspectives on the differences between a space race and an energy quest:

 Burton Richter, Nobel laureate in physics:

The President talked about Sputnik, which inspired the Eisenhower administration to sharply increase investment in education, and in all areas of science and technology.  The President mentioned the role of government in innovation, but Congress does not seem to have appreciated what the federal role has been.  Simply put, industry does not innovate; industry turns federally funded innovations into products.   Nobel laureates said it in 2009.  The National Academies of Sciences said it in 2010.  The American Enterprise Institute, Brookings and the Breakthrough Institute said it recently in a report called “Post-Partisan Power.”

America’s corporate leaders also said it recently in a report from The American Energy Innovation Council.  Every basic technology in one of the products of the decade, the iPhone (and the Blackberry before it), came from government funded research; the internet, the GPS system, large scale integrated circuits, and even the touch screen, (see “Where Good Technologies Come From“).

Without industry there would be no product.  Without government funded R&D there would be no innovative technology to turn into products.  To both Congress and the Administration I would say back the pieties with the funds required to realize them.

 Andrew Hargadon, professor and Soderquist Chair in Entrepreneurship, University of California, Davis, Graduate School of Management:

Was the U.S. investment in research and education what put a man on the moon? I would have guessed it was political commitment, public support, and all of the necessary pieces of technology essentially nearby.

Comparing the challenge of developing clean technologies to putting a man on the moon is politically enticing, but NASA didn’t have to deal with an aging infrastructure, 6-sigma uptime requirements over an average 40 year product life-cycle, commodity-priced competition, or reluctant customers. NASA had to do it once, with all new equipment, for whatever it cost, and the moon had no choice in the adoption decision. Try that with new energy technologies.

If anything, we need a wholesale change in how we think about innovation. The notion that putting a man on the moon takes the same innovation process as solar on every roof, electric cars in every garage, or LEDs in every home simply reveals that federal innovation policy is funded on misbegotten assumptions.

Andrew Chaikin, author of a comprehensive history of the Apollo space program:

People who are not scientists or engineers often confuse the two. Science is about refining our understanding of how the universe works. Engineering is about taking that understanding and using it to create new technologies or devices. With Apollo, the basic science of going to the moon — that is, how a rocket works, how you use the laws of physics to travel from one celestial body to another — was understood long before NASA was created. But building the machines that would actually make it happen took years of intensive engineering work, to refine the existing technologies of rockets, and pressure suits, and fuel cells, and other devices. Still, back in those days, newspaper stories (including many in the NYT) often referred to engineers working for NASA as “scientists.” And even today, we talk about “rocket scientists” when we should be talking about “rocket engineers.” Of course, there was plenty of wonderful science in Apollo: All the discoveries made about the Moon and the solar system from the rocks, photos, and data the astronauts brought home. But they would never have gotten there in the first place without engineers.”


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