The most exhilarating aspect of Barack Obama's recent article in the prestigious journal Science, "The irreversible momentum of clean energy", is the deep optimism it embodies. Published on January 9 — just a week-and-a-half before the end of his presidency — it provides consoling words to a world greatly in need of consolation.
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The piece has two audiences: Donald Trump and members of the public who worry climate action will come to a halt. It warns the former that if he tears up the Paris Agreement and ramps up coal, he'll harm domestic business and employment and threaten treasury income. Obama writes, "evidence is mounting that any economic strategy that ignores carbon pollution will impose tremendous costs to the global economy and will result in fewer jobs and less economic growth over the long term." He cites economic modelling suggesting warming of 4 C could result in an annual loss of $340 to $690 billion in U.S. government revenue. He points out that solar and wind companies employ more than twice as many Americans as the coal power sector (some 360,000 versus about 160,000). The message to Trump: If you want to support American workers and businesses, become a clean-energy champion.
The message to nervous citizens is one of reassurance. Trump's rhetoric notwithstanding, the new president's ability to undermine renewables is limited. The numbers are too compelling, the economic arguments too robust for an incoming administration to yank out solar and wind at this late date. Obama reminds us that, in the first seven years of his presidency, the cost of wind power dropped 41 per cent while the cost of utility-scale photovoltaics went down 64 per cent. In 2015, he says, twice as much international capital was invested in clean energy as in fossil fuels. He concludes, "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." (Emphasis added.) In other words, if Google and Walmart are committed to running all their activities with renewables — and they are — the new president's wishes are essentially irrelevant. Walmart trumps Trump.
Most heartening are two points Obama makes almost as an afterthought: his assertion that fossil fuel subsidies are a "market distortion that should be corrected" and his suggestion that, by mid-century, the U.S. should decarbonize its energy system. The latter, in particular, is brilliantly audacious, even if it does depend on some nuclear. Recall that the "energy system" encompasses far more than electricity generation; it includes residential and commercial heating and transportation. It's a measure of the climate movement's strength that elite actors like Obama urge not tinkering but an economy-wide drop in GHGs of at least 80 per cent.
His paper's only unfortunate aspect is its unquestioning commitment to economic growth. Yes, he wants emissions to fall, but he also wants economies to expand. He may feel this frame is necessary if he's to have some chance, however minimal, to influence the new administration.
Lost is any opportunity to show his followers — and their numbers are substantial — that the growth model is, at the very least, problematic.
Perhaps it's too much to ask a president to critique sacred economic assumptions. Perhaps it's enough that he advocates a radical energy overhaul.
Can we run our society with vastly less fossil fuel? As he prepares to leave office, the Climate-Optimist-in-Chief suggests, "Yes, we can."