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Obama Says We Will Respond To Threat, The Democrats Revenge

Politics / US Politics Jan 22, 2013 - 02:31 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


In his inaugural address for his second and last presidential mandate, 21 January, president Obama made it clear he was going to take an aggressive line, for the 1461 days of his second mandate, on what he described as a threat so massive and so grave that "failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

No he wasn't talking about al Qaeda in North Africa or anyplace else. He was talking about climate change.  Mr. Obama gave more mention to this subject, on Monday 21 January, than he devoted to any other specific theme or subject. To be sure he was forced to acknowledge that global warming, climate change or plain old bad weather as an all-new Apocalypse brought down from on high on Weak and Lustful Humanity has a tired and battered, disputed, and even controversial image. He said: “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms". In fact plenty of persons, including Nobel scientists can and do deny the so-called "overwhelming scientific judgement" on a subject which scholars, scientists, playwrights, punsters - and recently politicians - have kicked around for well over 150 years. As Nobel physicist Ivar Giaever said on the subject, it is not possible to say there is such a thing as an exact measurable "global average" temperature. In that case, can we be sure how much, or rather how very little it is changing?

The centre stage role that Obama gave to the fight against bad weather has no need for scientific frills, and runs on the high powered fuel of news show thrills showing houses washed away, cars turned over and smashed like toys, tsunami rollers crashing into nuclear reactors - and the rest.  The central role he gave shows clearly that "bad weather mitigation" is what he sees as a popular second-term priority. Underlining the interesting and rapid shift of presidential goals since his re-election, Obama gave almost no attention to global warming-climate change-bad weather during his campaign.

 Mr. Obama has extensively studied the lessons he learned from his first term. One major lesson and big defeat was his failure in 2009 to win passage of comprehensive legislation to reduce emissions of gases thought to cause global warming. This time, the White House plan is much finer-tuned and more closely focused and will attack greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, raise the electrical efficiency of home appliances, and use the Federal government's purchasing power to selectively aid promising greentech and cleantech, including all electric cars. If necessary, and it probably will, this will be through executive order.

 Mr. Obama’s path on global warming, climate change and bad weather can be compared with the sometimes similar "evolutionary path" of European leaders, the leaders of China and India, and other world leaders. In summary this is a time- and power-constrained acceptance that "the fight against global warming" is above all slow - like global warming itself. Business and the economy operate on altogether different timelines, and Mr Obama has learned this 20/20.

Political trench war also enters the new Obama approach to fighting bad weather: intense conservative opposition has to be worked around but without the defeat of outright compromise. Four years ago, Obama gave repeated and passionate speeches on healing the planet and turning back the inexorable rise of world sea levels, but this time he wants political victories for the Democrats, using an agenda much more fine-tuned to what is politically possible.

The "attack on coal" is therefore sure and certain to go ahead. Within weeks, Obama's new administration will bolster action by the Environmental Protection Agency to clamp down further on emissions from coal-burning power plants, under new and tighter regulations still being drafted — to be sure there will be legal challenges - but the US coal industry has few friends and no overwhelming economic rationale.

Without in any way admitting this, in the same way as this is rarely admitted outside of the USA - except in extreme cases like Germany's Energiewende - Obama's administration plans to supplement the "death of coal fired power" with new electricity-saving energy efficiency standards for home appliances and buildings. The unstated goal in the US, but stated goal in Germany is to reduce total national electricity demand, possibly for decades ahead. German goals run as high as a 25%-33% reduction in national power demand, on a 2012 basis, within 10 to 15 years.

Making electricity a "rare commodity" is also useful as a price-raising strategy, and given the simply massive costs of "rebuilding and restructuring" the electric power sector, certainly costing in the trillions of dollar range over the next 10 years, higher power prices will be obligatory. In the same way, ever higher car fleet average fuel efficiency regulations (CAFE) politically sugar the pill of ever higher gasoline and diesel fuel prices, that is raised US Federal taxes, and taxes set by other governments on fuel more than compensating any decline in US oil prices due to the shale oil revolution and probable declining world prices for oil.

Mr. Obama’s spin doctors have, this time around, built a campaign that they believe will itself build public support and neutralize political opposition in a way the administration failed to do, previously. Also this time around, Obama can use public concern about a Republical-dominated Congress which seems obsessed by the fear themes of guns, immigration and tax crisis. To be sure, leading members of the GOP can deride Obama's new "liberal laundry list", and try calling it "environmental extremism" but bad weather news clips have a human feel about them, and fighting the menace of bad weather has a feel-good aura to it. In any case, few Americans feel concerned or ashamed about closing down the coal industry, using lower wattage lighting and driving smaller cars which use less fuel.

 For Barack Obama, his renewed struggle against bad weather can be set as a personal quest which leads to action on the ground, changing the lives or ordinary persons, but without necessarily costing jobs or making the US even less competitive with China. Like Germany, the clean-energy quest may spawn a massive new industry, although this is far from sure and previous Obama failures in this domain were pounced on by Republicans.

Beyond the new climate policies, Obama's administration will capitalize on the continuing surge of US natural gas production and record-low prices. As a cheaper and cleaner alternative to coal, natural gas makes it easier to dump coal-fired power and reduce carbon emissions. The 2009 defeat of Obama's attempt to push through tradable permits for CO2 and other GHG emissions, has probably permanently shifted his administration to the new approach of regulations and Federal financing for alternative energy. Mr Obama can also say that despite the lack of comprehensive legislation, US emissions have declined roughly 10% since he took office, in 2009, which in major part is due to the economic slowdown, but is also due to energy efficiency regulations and initiatives by government and industry.

 Obama's new administration has however not got a sure and certain win-win ahead of it: one of the major problems for Obama is that the electoral map of Democrat-dominated States is also a map of coal-producing and coal job States, meaning possible rebellion by some Democrats in Congress. In turn, analysts suggest this will strengthen Obama's resolve to use straight regulatory power, notably through the Environmental Protection Agency, to push his clean energy strategy further ahead. In his second term, Barack Obama can play stern, tough and prepared to pass regulation by executive fiat. This action, they conclude, could come sooner rather than later.

The action will be powerful: possibly one-in-four of the USA's present coal-fired power plants could shut down within 4 years or 1461 days. How Mr Obama handles this action, and especially how the public react and respond to a swath of new "climate friendly" legislation, will be key factors. Under any hypothesis however, Mr Obama will have to hope for generous servings of freak weather events, at least as memorable as Hurricane Sandy and record-high summer temperatures, to maintain popular support for easily criticized, possibly unnecessary, economically uncertan action to fight bad weather.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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