David Roberts isn’t any more impressed with the president’s energy plan than I am. He says it “lacks imagination, ambition, stones.” The Economist’s Ryan Avent calls it “old hash.” Joe Romm snarks that “absent a climate crisis, this would be great stuff.” Of course, “absent a climate crisis” has a bit of an “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” feel to it.
This brings up one of the toughest questions in punditry: What is the right thing for the president to do on an issue that’s 1) morally urgent and 2) absolutely dead on arrival in Congress? There’s no argument, after all, that cap-and-trade has even a shadow of a hope of a glimmer of a chance right now. The most important question in climate change for the next year or two is a defensive one: Can the administration protect the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon from congressional assault? A “yes” answer to that question requires remaining in office, and so you can argue that a politically smart “energy independence” plan that doesn’t do nearly enough to address climate change is better for climate-change policy than a politically dumb climate change proposal that sets the hearts of climate hawks aflutter.
That said, I’m not convinced they’ve got the right mix here. A carbon-pricing agenda is dead, but I think there’s more life in an ambitious, innovation-centered agenda than the administration does. Unfortunately, for all Obama has said about winning the future, the actual investments he’s announced have been too few, too small and too disconnected from one another. I’d vastly prefer to see the administration fighting for a $15 billion pot of dedicated, annual funding for energy research -- even if the argument is about our economy rather than our climate -- than the mishmash in this plan. I’d have much preferred to see the administration simply endorse the Energy Innovation Council’s plan, and so far as the politics of it go, you really can’t find much more business-world firepower in one place than you see in this group. The one big exception here is the clean-energy standard mandating that 80 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2035 — think of it as a third-best form of carbon pricing in the electricity sector — but until I see more details on how it’ll work, I can’t give it much credit.
But I’m a dilettante on this stuff. The people running energy policy in the White House care about climate change a lot more than I do. They’ve dedicated their lives to it, where I only give it the occasional blog post. And this is where they’ve agreed to put their marker. I don’t think it’s far enough, nor do the outside experts and commentators who follow this issues closely. But policy isn’t the only dimension here. The problem is that the administration can’t really say that, and so when they make the case for their plan, it’s devoid of specific responses to these sorts of concerns. If this plan were being billed as a modest, incremental step in the right direction, I think I’d have less of a problem with it.