There was good reason to be hopeful in January 2009 that the election of Barack Obama would bring about America's long-awaited clean energy revolution. As president-elect, Obama had started to talk about energy policy in a way that no leader of either U.S. party had before. Promising to save the country from both severe recession and industrial decline, Obama described the transformation of the United States' energy economy as a defining challenge of his presidency -- an economic and national security imperative that Congress would fail to address at the country's peril.
But the reality fell far short of expectations. The Obama administration succumbed, like many others, to a sort of magical climate thinking that promised a painless and even prosperous transition to a low-carbon future with the tools already at hand. The only official within his administration to accurately grasp the technology challenges faced, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, was sidelined at crucial moments.
Here is the back story of how the Obama administration dramatically raised and then dashed America's -- and the world's -- hopes that 2009 would be a pivotal year for remaking our collective energy future.
One year ago, in his first State of the Union address, Obama proposed a previously unprecedented $15 billion annual investment in clean energy research and development. Further, he appointed a technologist, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Chu, as energy secretary to oversee that investment. The $800 billion stimulus, passed shortly thereafter, gave further credence to the notion that after 30 years of false starts, overblown rhetoric, and outright neglect, Congress and the president might finally get serious about remaking the United States' energy economy.
The stimulus included billions for energy R&D, infrastructure, and efficiency, and overturned the conventional wisdom that the United States would never again make big federal investments in technology as it had during the Cold War. But no sooner had the president's stimulus program demonstrated that a new way forward on climate change and energy might be possible, then the new administration relinquished its climate change and energy policy to the partisans of the past.
A new administration is always an inchoate thing, a reflection of the divergent and conflicting interests that make broad and successful electoral coalitions possible. The Obama administration was no different, and when it came to energy and climate change, a tangled text of sub rosa commitments -- to various carbon emissions targets and timetables, to making clean energy "the profitable kind of energy," to investing in clean coal, nuclear power, and solar tax credits -- lay beneath the banner headlines about clean energy investments and green jobs.
As the new administration took shape, the question of how those various commitments would be reconciled was largely unresolved. But the senior team that Obama assembled to lead the administration's climate change and energy efforts held some clues. Chu, as it turned out, was the only prominent energy technology advocate given a senior role in the administration. Virtually every other key policy role was filled by environmental regulators -- former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Carol Browner as climate czar, former Browner aide Lisa Jackson as EPA administrator, and Nancy Sutley as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Putting Browner, a former Al Gore aide, in charge of climate-change policy was payback to environmental groups and the green donors who had supported Obama's campaign. But it also signaled that, inside the White House, the clean energy investment message that the president had used to such great effect in winning battleground states like Ohio and Colorado was seen as just that: a powerful message to use in the campaign, not a policy priority.
In this, Obama was following two decades of magical thinking among both greens and liberal Democrats about energy technology. In this view, energy efficiency pays for itself, solar and wind power are already nearly cost competitive with fossil fuels, and both can quickly and cheaply reduce emissions. This Pollyanna view of fossil fuel alternatives and efficiency, which makes going green seem cheap and easy -- little more than the cost of "a postage stamp a day" -- has provided the justification for green-policy advocacy that has overwhelmingly focused on pollution regulations and carbon pricing while ignoring serious investment in energy research and development.
The price of Obama's failure to break with green climate orthodoxy is only now becoming apparent. The collapse of international climate negotiations in Copenhagen last month was just the latest evidence that efforts to regulate global pollution output cannot succeed. The Kyoto framework, which imagined that carbon pollution limits could be the primary driver of the complete transformation of the global energy economy, has irretrievably failed.
The real technological obstacles to decarbonizing the global economy today represent an insurmountable obstacle to political efforts to limit carbon emissions. Until policymakers get serious about addressing the central technological challenge, all efforts to control carbon emissions are doomed.