Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address (full text) is important to us all because it is not only a critical reflection on where we stand today, but also on where we’re going, where we need to go, and how we can succeed as a nation (all according to our President and his team, the people with the most power concerning this matter… or who should have the most power concerning this matter). Here are my reflections (and the reflections of a few others) on Obama’s speech (originally published on Planetsave).

Global Warming Left Out

 

Bryan Walsh of TIME’s Ecocentric blog notes, “Tonight’s State of the Union may be remembered as the moment when the White House stopped working on climate—and started working on energy.”

This is a big point. While we just saw the hottest year on record, Obama made no mention of it. He seems to have decided that global warming or climate change or global weirding should not be mentioned. There are a lot of reasons why he might be doing so (i.e. it has become a divided issue politically, people like to hear about solutions not problems, or it is too complicated a topic for the American public), but as Dr Joe Romm of Climate Progress notes: “These omissions were depressingly predictable (see ‘Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?’) and thus, predictably, depressing to climate hawks.” This was a clear disappointment to those of us who see the issue as the biggest economic, quality of life, and societally existential issue of our time.

Obama’s (or his team’s) decision to not mention global warming or climate change means that a ton more people will not see its importance or validity as one of the most critical issues we must address, one of the most critical issues (probably the most critical) the world is facing.

“Clean” Energy Front and Center

 

While global warming was left out of the speech, clean energy was a prominent focus. In other words, while not wanting to discuss the problem, Obama was more than eager to discuss one of the key solutions.

“Clean” Energy Creates Jobs

Obama knows that clean energy creates more jobs per dollar invested than fossil fuel industries. But he also knows that the clean energy industry needs more security than it has seen for that to hold true in the future. Obama said:

Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all – and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.

This provided a clear push to finally create some form of federal energy policy… not a completely stupid mishmash of energy laws and subsidies.

American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) CEO Denise Bode, commenting on the speech, noted (in an email):

We are pleased to see the possibility of the first predictable long-term federal policy toward renewable energy. But of course we’ll need to make sure the policy really deploys the renewable energy Americans want in the near term, as well as the long term.

Wind energy can deliver right now on its promise to deliver new electricity to Americans more affordably than any other energy source, if we have a level playing field to compete with the permanent entitlements that fossil fuels have enjoyed for over 90 years.

Exactly… (I’ll get to the fossil fuel industry more in a bit).

Why the ” ” Around “Clean”

Well, the ‘ugly’ news (as Dr Romm called it) is that what Obama terms “clean” energy is a mixture of real clean energy (solar and wind), economically suicidal nuclear energy (which, debatably, is also far from clean) and not-clean coal.

Here’s more on nuclear’s financial risk from our friend Timothy Hurst of ecopolitology:

Greenpeace’s Phil Radford points out that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has said that new nuclear loans pose a greater than 50 percent chance of default.  Radford writes that in the State of the Union, “President Obama should support his own Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chief, who says that the U.S. can produce all new electricity without any new nuclear or coal power plants.”

Natural gas is also running into all sorts of environmental problems and may be much less climate-friendly than has been claimed.

Of course, supporting these other energy supplies is perhaps the only way to get anything through a bought and bribed Congress. So, it may just be something we have to swallow if we want to tackle the environmental problems we’re facing, including the unutterable words that start with G and W.

Fossil Fuel Industries Don’t Need Any More Help

Perhaps the strongest statement in Obama’s whole speech was the following:

We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.

This is huge. This is a key to making the energy playing field just, to cutting tons of wasteful spending out of the federal budget, and to addressing… ok, I’ll say it, GLOBAL WARMING… doon, doon, doon.

Seriously, this is a key proposal that is about more than rhetoric. AWEA’s Bode writes, “On ending billions in oil industry tax subsidies and investing in ‘tomorrow’s energy’:  It is true that fossil fuels receive five times more in federal incentives than renewable energy. We don’t believe that is in line with Americans’ current priorities.”

Bryan Walsh notes:

Republicans in the audience didn’t exactly jump behind that one, but it might have been the most stunning line of the speech. Past Presidents have promised again and again to get America off foreign oil. Former President George W. Bush, who made his money in the petroleum industry, told Congress in his 2006 State of the Union speech that “America is addicted to oil”—then did nothing about it. But Obama has actually charted a path away from oil and other fossil fuels.

Will it finally happen?

High-Speed Rail to Get More Support

 

While some extremely narrow-minded Republicans have sacrificed jobs and economic growth in their states to oppose one of Obama’s favorite topics, one also highly supported by Americans and people the world over, high-speed rail is a critical part of economic growth and solutions to help the environment. To drop support for it would have been a bad move. Obama did the opposite. He increased his support for it.

Here’s more from Obama:

Over the last two years, we have begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. Tonight, I’m proposing that we redouble these efforts.

We will put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We will make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based on what’s best for the economy, not politicians.

Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down.  As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway….

This sort of investment and foresight is what made America great. It’s important that we not lose that and continue falling behind in the world economy. It’s important that we not continue ruining our quality of life with unnecessary traffic congestionlost productiveness and money, and air and water pollution. It’s important that we not become a nation of incrementalists.

It’s good to see Obama has not lost his focus on this critical transportation solution to our numerous economic and environmental problems.

Obama is Not Going to Drop Critical Environmental Regulations (that Actually Benefit the Economy)

 

Yes, Republicans will tell you until their blue in the face that the EPA attacks the economy. Far from the truth. Environmental regulations create a net benefit to the economy of tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars. And, clearly, they serve a key quality of life purpose.

Obama said:

I will not hesitate to create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people.  That’s what we’ve done in this country for more than a century. It’s why our food is safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our air is safe to breathe.

Who can argue with that?

Our Sputnik Moment

 

This is an analogy that has been circulating for awhile, because it is a good one. The U.S. is falling behind in the critical job-creating category of the future. We are at a key crossroads where we must decide to considerably boost our efforts and get on top again or risk falling further on the global economic and technological stage.

Here’s more from Obama:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Already, we are seeing the promise of renewable energy. Robert and Gary Allen are brothers who run a small Michigan roofing company. After September 11th, they volunteered their best roofers to help repair the Pentagon. But half of their factory went unused, and the recession hit them hard.

Today, with the help of a government loan, that empty space is being used to manufacture solar shingles that are being sold all across the country. In Robert’s words, “We reinvented ourselves.”

That’s what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.

At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they’re using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities. With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.

Right on.

More thoughts on Obama’s State of the Union speech? Share them below.

Photo Credit: Medill DC