President Obama has long made a moral case for investing in clean energy technologies such as wind and solar, saying the United States and other countries must slash their emissions of greenhouse gases to stave off the worse effects of global warming.
But writing Monday in the journal Science, the president also makes an economic argument for a national policy that embraces renewable energy, rather than the renewed focus on fossil fuel production that his successor has promised.
“We have long known, on the basis of a massive scientific record, that the urgency of acting to mitigate climate change is real and cannot be ignored,” Obama wrote in an article that will be printed in the journal’s Jan. 13 edition. “In recent years, we have also seen that the economic case for action — and against inaction — is just as clear.”
The piece is at once a defense of his administration’s energy policies — from new vehicle fuel standards to subsidies for wind and solar projects to regulations on everything from methane to carbon dioxide — and an argument that the incoming administration of Donald Trump would be wise to stay the course.
Obama has been making many such closing arguments lately, in a wide range of publications. In a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, he warned of the risks to millions of Americans of repealing the Affordable Care Act without an adequate replacement. In the Harvard Law Review, he touted his administration’s criminal justice reforms.
As in each of those areas, when it comes to energy policy, Obama’s arguments are likely to fall on deaf ears.
Trump has vowed to “unleash” the full energy-producing power of the United States in a bid to keep electricity costs in check and to create jobs. He wants to open more federal lands to oil and gas drilling and coal mining. He has promised to scrap a slew of environmental regulations he calls unnecessary and burdensome to corporations, “cancel” U.S. participation in the global Paris climate accord and shrink the role of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In his Science article, which is dotted with photos of wind turbines and solar farms, Obama argues that would be a mistake.
He noted that many businesses themselves are concluding that reducing emissions isn’t just good for the environment, but also for the bottom line. He noted that millions of Americans already are employed in jobs related to energy-efficient technologies and that the cost of renewable energy has continued to decline, partly because of government incentives, but largely because of market forces.
Obama also insists that walking away from the international climate agreement signed in Paris would not only be a moral mistake that could risk serious environmental harm, but also an economic blunder.
“This should not be a partisan issue. It is good business and good economics to lead a technological revolution and define market trends,” he writes. “And it is smart planning to set long-term, emission-reduction targets and give American companies, entrepreneurs, and investors certainty so they can invest and manufacture the emission-reducing technologies that we can use domestically and export to the rest of the world.”
The implied message: To turn the nation’s back on such opportunities cedes leadership to other countries. Case in point: China’s recent announcement that it will pour more than $360 billion into developing renewable technologies by 2020.
Ultimately, Obama knows that the man who will occupy the Oval Office in two weeks has promised to dismantle his environmental legacy and to embolden the oil, gas and coal industries, which have heralded Trump’s arrival. Despite that, Obama argues that no matter what policies his successor might pursue, there is little he can do to halt the current transition away from fossil fuels.
“The business case for clean energy is growing, and the trend toward a cleaner power sector can be sustained regardless of near-term federal policies,” he writes, adding, “I believe the trend toward clean energy is irreversible.”