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What We Talk About When We Talk About Clean Energy

Democrats and Republicans agree: clean energy creates jobs. But it makes no sense to support renewable energy without talking about climate change.

As his potential election opponents prepared to debate in Iowa yesterday, President Obama visited a Michigan factory that builds batteries for electric vehicles to speak about his administration’s energy accomplishments, particularly the stricter fuel economy standards announced last month. But the president didn’t want to talk about how the new regulation will cut down on carbon emissions—it was all about about creating jobs and saving consumers money. “That’s why we’re investing in clean energy,” he said.

Climate change doesn’t play well politically these days, so many politicians have taken to pushing clean energy policies without pointing out one of the strongest reasons to pursue them: the need to decrease carbon emissions. In a Time magazine article supportive of Obama, reporter Michael Grunwald argued that what the president says about climate change matters less than what he does about it. But talking about clean energy without talking about climate change doesn’t make sense.

The Republican presidential candidates are even more egregious in advocating clean energy while ignoring the emissions issue. As a group, they’ve disavowed any comprehensive plan to deal with carbon emissions, and several of them have called into question whether climate change is happening at all. At last night’s Republican debate, Michele Bachmann made Tim Pawlenty’s flirtation with cap-and-trade the center of her attack on the former Minnesota governor, and Jon Huntsman avoided answering a question about his work on a regional emissions agreement.

Meanwhile, like Obama, Republicans are eager to point out that clean energy creates jobs. This talking point plays well in Iowa, which has the second-biggest wind energy capacity of any state in the country. Tomorrow, according to the American Wind Energy Association, the candidates plan to sign an 130-foot American-made turbine blade next to a factory in Iowa.

The only state with more wind power capacity than Iowa is Texas, whose governor, Rick Perry, is set to announce his candidacy for president tomorrow. Like the other Republican candidates, Perry has been eager to support wind energy, using the same arguments as Obama: clean energy can create jobs and reduce dependence on foreign oil. Yet Perry has voiced skepticism of climate science, attacked cap-and-trade as a “carbon tax,” and continued to support Texas’ oil and gas industries.

At least Perry’s position is internally consistent. If the main benefit of wind power is that it creates jobs, well, so do oil and gas drilling. Texas doesn’t have much in the way of coal resources, but if it did, Perry would likely support mining as well. If the only reason to support a particular policy is job creation, there's no difference between "clean" and "dirty" energy.

The trouble is that the most compelling economic reason to pursue clean energy policies is the long-term impacts on the environment. Short-term arguments for energy efficiency only go so far, in part because they often require investment now for payoff later. Consumers are wary of energy-efficient light bulbs in part because they cost more than incandescent bulbs up front, even though they save consumers money in the long term. Republicans like Michele Bachmann are less interested in the savings (whether economic or environmental) than in the status quo: As she told Sean Hannity last night, “When I'm in the White House as president, Sean, you can buy any light bulb you want to buy.”

Without talking about climate change, the case for clean energy ends up in the same place: Why shouldn’t we be able to buy any type of energy we want to buy, whether coal, gas, or oil? They all create jobs, and like incandescent bulbs, they’re cheaper in the short term. The only logical answer is that because of climate change, ultimately they’ll cost much more.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user

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