Global Warming and Energy Independence

I have no idea who will win the presidential election tomorrow. The fact is that climate change went almost unmentioned in both campaigns, and was not discussed at all in any of the three presidential debates. Some blame the moderators for thinking that the topic is not a priority for voters, and therefore not raising the issue, but the silence regarding science in the debates didn’t come from a lack of opportunities to raise the issue. As John M. Broder mentioned (New York Times – October 26, 2012) in his The Agenda article titled “Both Romney and Obama Avoid Talk of Climate Change”:

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney agree that that the world is warming and that humans are at least partly to blame. It remains wholly unclear what either of them plans to do about it.

Such a statement needs some support. I have summarized the candidate’s positions, based on their convention speeches and direct responses to a pointed question from ScienceDebate in a previous blog (September 17). The most direct support can be found in the candidates’ responses to the ScienceDebate question, which was re-published in the Scientific American. I will repeat relevant segments here:

2. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?
Barack Obama: Climate change is the one of the biggest issues of this generation, and we have to meet this challenge by driving smart policies that lead to greater growth in clean energy generation and result in a range of economic and social benefits. Since taking office I have established historic standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions from our vehicles for the first time in history. My administration has made unprecedented investments in clean energy, proposed the first-ever carbon pollution limits for new fossil-fuel-fired power plants and reduced carbon emissions within the Federal Government. Since I took office, the U.S. is importing an average of 3 million fewer barrels of oil every day, and our dependence on foreign oil is at a 20-year low. We are also showing international leadership on climate change, reaching historic agreements to set emission limits in unison with all major developed and developing nations. There is still more to be done to address this global problem. I will continue efforts to reduce our dependence on oil and lower our greenhouse gas emissions while creating an economy built to last.   Mitt Romney: I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences. However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk — and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community. Ultimately, the science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response. President Obama has taken the view that if global warming is occurring, the American response must be to slash carbon dioxide emissions by imposing enormous costs on the U.S. economy. First he tried a massive cap-and-trade bill that would have devastated U.S. industry. When that approach was rejected by Congress, he declared his intention to pursue the same course on his own and proceeded through his EPA to impose rules that will bankrupt the coal industry.Nowhere along the way has the President indicated what actual results his approach would achieve — and with good reason. The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better, but it will not better the environment.

There is an intrinsic contradiction here that needs further explanation. The contradiction is embedded in the last quoted paragraph in Mr. Romney’s approach:

The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not American Warming… Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic.

From here, both candidates have been very vocal about their commitment to use every resource at their disposal to pursue future plans not for a global shift from fossils to renewable and/or nuclear, but instead to ensure American energy independence.

For me, the most disturbing aspect of this strategy came during the second debate, and it came from President Obama:

MS. CROWLEY (the moderator): I — OK. We’ll — you certainly will have lots of time here coming up. I — because I want to move you on to something that — sort of connected to cars here, and go over — and we want to get a question from Philip Tricolla.

Q: Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The most important thing we can do is to make sure we control our own energy.

So here’s what I’ve done since I’ve been president. We have increased oil production to the highest levels in 16 years. Natural gas production is the highest it’s been in decades. We have seen increases in coal production and coal employment.

The debate went on to explore what Obama did or didn’t do to further US independence of its energy supply. If Climate Change is a global issue, why is pursuing energy independence the answer? One of the most disturbing aspects of the President’s reply to this question was not that he didn’t answer the question, but that he didn’t even mention Secretary Chu in his response. The President forgot that Secretary Chu, a physicist and a Nobel Laureate, works for him, and that it’s his job to execute the President’s policy. This omission stood up in another context in this debate – the President’s response to a question about the recent killing of four Americans in the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, let me, first of all, talk about our diplomats, because they serve all around the world and do an incredible job in a very dangerous situation. And these aren’t just representatives of the United States; they’re my representatives. I send them there, oftentimes into harm’s way. I know these folks, and I know their families. So nobody’s more concerned about their safety and security than I am.

The President continues on this issue:

And when it comes to this issue, when I say that we are going to find out exactly what happened, everybody will be held accountable, and I am ultimately responsible for what’s taking place there, because these are my folks, and I’m the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home, you know that I mean what I say.

Why American diplomats are his representatives and Secretary Chu is not, remains unanswered. The President knew that the energy secretary was referring to two issues in the statements mentioned: that gas prices are determined by international oil prices, in which the federal government plays a minor role, and that the government’s principal tool for shifting demand to more sustainable energy sources is to increase the price of fossil fuels. Price increase of gasoline, aimed at encouraging a reduction of its consumption, is one of the main available policy tools. The President, however, decided not to mention any of this.

As I wrote this blog, Sandy came and went, leaving a great deal of damage in its wake. Anthropogenic climate change resurfaced in the public consciousness, along with its predictions of the increased frequency of extreme events. I have no idea how long this renewed interest will last, or whether it will be followed by concrete actions. To a degree, this will depend on the choices that we make tomorrow.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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