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Why Barack Obama gets solar, and Tony Abbott doesn’t

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Last week Tony Abbott was sounding all concerned about the future of the planet. The world only has one, he said accurately, and we should really protect it. But not if it meant sacrificing the economy for the sake of the environment.

GREEN ARMY INITIATIVE LAUNCH

Those comments were ridiculed by leading economic commentators such as Fairfax Media’s Ross Gittins, who noted that the economy is actually a “wholly owned subsidiary of the environment”, and on social media: “If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try counting your money while holding your breath,” noted one Tweet.

Leading economist Nicholas Stern has added his voice to the debate. In a speech in Paris overnight, at an event organised  by the French government in the lead up to the Paris climate summit later this year, Lord Stern said it was clear that economic growth and climate responsibility had to go together.

“There is no horse race between economic growth and climate action,” Stern said.

“To portray them as in conflict is to misunderstand economic development and the opportunities that we now have to move to the low-carbon economy. To pretend otherwise is diversionary and indeed creates an ‘artificial horse race’ which can cause real damage to the prospects for agreement.”

Abbott’s increasingly isolated position, and his government’s apparent determination to dig the economy further into a fossil fuel lock-down, as it considers using taxpayer’s money to finance the critical rail link for the huge Adani coal mine, comes as other major economies accelerate their own shift to clean energy.

US President Barack Obama kicked off a 10-day “climate tour” of the US with a speech to a clean energy summit in Nevada (Abbott ministers don’t do speeches to clean energy summits), in which he promoted solar energy, and attacked fossil fuel interests fighting renewable energy, particularly the infamous Koch brothers.

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“When you start seeing massive lobbying efforts backed by fossil fuel interests, or conservative think tanks, or the Koch brothers pushing for new laws to roll back renewable energy standards, or to prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding, that’s s problem,” Obama said.

Obama highlighted the plunging cost of solar, and defended the community’s right to install solar, despite some attempts by utilities in the US to remove incentives, in a repeat of acts that have become widespread in Australia.

Obama noted that corporate giants Walmart, Google and Apple were among the largest purchasers of clean energy and installers of clean energy systems in the world. “For decades, we’ve been told that it doesn’t make economic sense to switch to renewable energy,” Obama said. “Today, that’s no longer true.”

He said that the nation’s quick move toward renewable energy was creating “resistance from some fossil fuel interests.” He cited the Koch brothers among people who like to promote free-market ideology, except when it comes to clean energy.

As he spoke, the White House unveiled a range of initiatives to encourage consumers to develop their own electricity – from rooftop solar and battery storage.

“We are seeing the beginning of this transformation,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a press call unveiling the initiatives on Monday, “and we see a huge opportunity to expand it rapidly.”

Australia is at the forefront of this transformation, because it has more rooftop solar per household than any other country. Yet the changing dynamics are not recognised by the Abbott government, or by regulators who continue to put the brake on incentives, rather than seeking to accelerate them.

Back in Paris, Lord’s Stern speech highlighted the isolation that the Abbott government will feel in the lead up and at the Paris climate talks, particularly in its insistence that coal is the answer to energy poverty.

“We have learned how the use of fossil fuels is creating a whole range of problems in addition to climate change, particularly huge damage through air pollution,” Stern said.

“Lives and livelihoods are being destroyed now on a great scale by air and other pollution. The number of deaths from this source is many millions a year globally, with affliction and maiming of many millions more.”

He also called for world leaders to attend the summit in Paris at the end of the year, and said that it “should not just be for environment ministers and foreign ministers”.

“It must have the support and involvement of Presidents, Prime Ministers, economy and finance ministers as well. Remember, this is all about development and growth. This is about the two defining challenges of our century: overcoming poverty and managing climate change. If we fail on one, we will fail on the other.”  

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  • Rob G

    There is no doubt in my mind that Obama will leave the white house as a champion for the climate. When Abbott visits with him next month, he can expect a kick in the backside for his lacklustre climate efforts. Whether he acts remains to be seen, but then again, after the Canning election he may be sitting on the back bench….

    • Peter Campbell

      I hope he does just well enough to hang in there long enough to lose the next election.

    • Alastair Leith

      Whatever Obama does from now on is window dressing. He had his chances and blew it. Yes, Congress is owned by FF interests but Obama showed a complete reluctance to spend political capital on CC (even if he is gravely concerned about it now) and his emissions reduction legislation is little more than an on-trend codification of what’s already happening in their economy.

      By using a 2005 GHG emissions high water mark he’s done a whole lot of almost nothing. By ignoring the issue of fugitive emissions in gas fields he’s been asleep at the wheel during an explosion in the shorter long-lived GHG of methane in USA. By declaring an “all of the above energy policy” and encouraging Arctic drilling and refusing to veto the Keystone pipe he’s tried to make friends with everyone except the climate.

      I acknowledge the symbolism of his legislation is an important shift from years of Bushes and Clinton, as is talking to China about working together which can’t have been easy to say the least.

      As Klein says, ‘Obama is starting to looking like a President concerned about CC, but when is he going to start acting like it?’

      • Bob_Wallace

        Are you actually that ignorant about what PBO has done re: renewable energy and climate change?

        • Alastair Leith

          Clearly in your mind, Bob. What about what they say at carbontax.org > http://www.carbontax.org/?s=obama Please enlighten me, I’d like to think he has done more. I think Sun Shot for instance was great, but cost him little political capital and I’m not how sure he was driving that initiative so much as going with the flow.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Guess you weren’t paying attention when these few things happened…

            Doubling federal spending on clean energy research. http://bit.ly/iN0sCE

            Pushed through a tax credit to help people buy plug-in hybrid cars. http://bit.ly/j8UP5Y

            Created a program to develop renewable energy projects on the waters of our Outer Continental Shelf that will produce electricity from wind, wave, and ocean currents. http://1.usa.gov/fgfRWq

            Reengaged in the climate change and greenhouse gas emissions agreements talks, and proposed one himself. He also addressed the U.N. Climate Change Conference, officially reversing the Bush era stance that climate change was a “hoax.” http://bit.ly/dX6Vj3 http://bit.ly/fE2PxKhttp://nyti.ms/hfeqvv

            Fully supported the initial phase of the creation of a legally-binding treaty to reduce mercury emissions worldwide. http://bit.ly/eJ6QOO

            Required states to provide incentives to utilities to reduce their energy consumption. http://bit.ly/lBhk7P

            Under Obama, our dependence on foreign oil has dropped to its lowest rate since 1985, and continues to drop. http://1.usa.gov/1p6kTUy Meanwhile, consumption is way down because of reduced driving and higher mileage standards. http://ti.me/1z4HFG8

            Improved siting, review and permitting stations for power plants, in an attempt to seriously improve the nation’s electric grid. http://1.usa.gov/1l8zNqn

            Following the neglect of Bush’s eight year reign, he reengaged in a number of treaties and agreements designed to protect the Antarctic. http://bit.ly/fzQUFO

            Created tax write-offs for purchases of hybrid automobiles, and later he and Democrats morphed that program into one that includes electric cars. http://bit.ly/glCukV

            Established a quadrennial review of our energy infrastructure, to encourage a modernization of the grid, and to encourage the transition away from fossil fuel use. http://1.usa.gov/1nx2oMo

            Mandated that federal government fleet purchases be for fuel-efficient American vehicles, and encouraged that federal agencies support experimental, fuel-efficient vehicles. http://bit.ly/h5KZqyhttp://1.usa.gov/fLWq5chttp://1.usa.gov/hmUSbk

            Got BP to cough up $20 billion to establish Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, to reduce the need for taxpayer funds to be used for compensation and clean up. http://wapo.st/ds2BxT (Note: it took 20 years to get $1.3 billion for the Exxon Valdez spill. )

            Oversaw and pushed through an amendment to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 authorizing advances from Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. http://1.usa.gov/yTRYVo

            Actively tried to amend the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to eliminate the liability limits for those companies responsible for large oil spills. http://nyti.ms/bxjDi3

            Became the first President to simply say “Climate Change is a fact,” and set up the first federal government protocols for dealing with the impacts of climate change. http://1.usa.gov/1b7V67B

            Initiated Criminal and Civil inquiries into the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. http://nyti.ms/bVuB7a

            Asserted federal legal supremacy to bar Texas from authorizing new refinery permits on its own.http://bit.ly/ww8eMd

            Set up new, stricter standards limiting power plant emissions. http://1.usa.gov/1mML2M3

            Strengthened the Endangered Species Act. http://bit.ly/hscjsH

            Strengthened protection for wildlife, and expanded enforcement of laws against wildlife trafficking. http://1.usa.gov/1fce1Ai

            Obama EPA improved boiler safety standards to improve air quality, and save 6500 lives per year. http://bit.ly/jYH7nt

            Through the EPA, attemped to take steps to severely limit the use of antibiotics in livestock feed, to increase their efficacy in humans. http://bit.ly/fBuWd2

            Through new EPA regulations, he created a pretext for closing the dirtiest power plants in the country, by limiting emissions of mercury and other toxic gasses. http://bit.ly/rQCIgA

            Increased funding for National Parks and Forests by 10% http://bit.ly/fbJPjY

            Announced greatly improved commercial fuel efficiency standards. http://1.usa.gov/oQiC1K

            Announced a huge increase in average fuel economy standards from 27.5mpg in 2010 to 35.5mpg starting in 2016 and 54.5 starting in 2025 http://1.usa.gov/qtghsW

            Issued an Executive Order to facilitate investments in industrial energy efficiency that will help create jobs, while strengthening US manufacturing. Increased efficiency could save businesses $100 billion over the next decade. http://1.usa.gov/WsIgbx

            Through an executive order, set up the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which will to oversee Gulf Coast restoration efforts in the wake of the 2010 BP oil splll. The money to fund the restoration efforts comes from fines against BP. http://1.usa.gov/Rxjb29

            Through executive actions and bypassing the ineffectual Republican Congress, announced the most comprehensive plan to combat climate change in a generation. http://bit.ly/13lXhET

            Ordered energy plants to prepare to produce at least 15% of all energy through renewable resources like wind and solar, by 2021. http://reut.rs/fV155p (Republicans are trying hard to kill it.)

            Oversaw the creation of an initiative that converts old factories and manufacturing centers into new clean technology centers. http://bit.ly/mjnq2R

            guided the country into a 418% increase in solar power capacity between 2010 and 2014. http://bit.ly/1rHkWJC

            Bypassed Republican opposition in Congress and ordered EPA to begin regulating and measuring carbon emissions. http://bit.ly/froaP5

            Oversaw a tripling in the use of wind power to generate electricity. For the third year in row, the United States led the world in increased wind power capacity. http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5448

            Ordered the federal government to incorporate climate resilience and climate science into all international development in which the United States engages. http://1.usa.gov/YV1EpW

            Fast-tracked regulations to allow states to enact fuel efficiency standards that exceeded federal standards. http://nyti.ms/e8e94x

            Fast-tracked increased fuel economy standards for vehicles beginning with the 2011 model year. It was the first time such standards had been increased in a decade. http://politi.co/hiaPKM

            Oversaw establishment of an Energy Partnership for the Americas, to create more markets for American-made biofuels and green energy technologies. http://bit.ly/lZp73y

            Obama EPA reversed a Bush-era decision to allow the largest mountaintop removal project in US history. http://bit.ly/lP3yEL

            Ordered the Department of Energy to implement more aggressive efficiency standards for common household appliances. http://1.usa.gov/g3MTbu

            Obama EPA ruled that excess CO2 is a pollutant. http://bit.ly/iQTSNN

            Closed a deal with China to limit carbon emissions to perhaps slow down climate change. http://nyti.ms/1xzyS8K

            Blocked all oil and gas drilling in Bristol Bay, Alaska, one of the most pristine environments in North America http://lat.ms/13xUVFD

            Signed an Executive Order to improve environmental efforts in the Arctic region and to combat climate change by better coordinating the efforts of the 23 federal agencies operating in the area. http://usat.ly/ZEzLzE

            Vetoed a bill to fast track construction of the parallel Keystone XL pipeline. http://nbcnews.to/1DVDFo7

            Expanded clean water regulations to more stringently protect all of the nation’s waterways, even when states fail in their duty. http://bit.ly/1RdQpTc

            Signed an Executive Order committing the federal government to lead the way in building a sustainable economy. It’s his fifth doing just that. http://1.usa.gov/1EzO2ne

            Banned the use of antibiotics in food served in US Government-run cafeterias and ordered agencies to only use antibiotic-free meat. http://bit.ly/1G1vUxi http://bit.ly/1KHkl4N

            Developed new rules to address climate change and to create a significant boost to clean energy. http://bit.ly/1UnQcuR

            http://pleasecutthecrap.com/obama-accomplishments/

          • Alastair Leith

            You must have cut and paste that, Bob. Nobody can type that fast! Going to take me a few days to get into all those links.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Copied from another site and gave you the link at the bottom.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Now, did you actually read the link you posted or just stop at the end of the first paragraph?

            Did you get down to here?

            “It is probably true that we’re not likely to see a repeat of two factors that contributed to the 2005-2014 reduction in power-sector emissions — the long and deep recession that began in 2007-2008, and the advent of cheap fracked methane that grabbed market share from higher-polluting coal-fired generation.”

            The goal of 32% emission drop from 2005. We’re ahead of schedule due to the Great Recession and natural gas replacing a lot of coal use. Since we can’t count on any more ‘black swans’ keeping our rate of reduction really speedy, PBO is failing?

            (Yes, over time we will need to increase our rate of transitioning off fossil fuels. But as we move past 2030 most, if not all, our coal plants will age out and won’t be replaced with new coal plants. And developments in storage will likely replace natural gas.)

          • Alastair Leith

            It was the June post on their blog, the second that search list that most influenced my opinion that the ER targets were unambitious. Hopefully they will be strengthened. I’m also cognisant that the apparent emissions reductions partially come and will continue to come from GHG accounting failures in emissions accounting for the unconventional gas boom (fugitives).

            Quite a few of your list points are normal reversals of conservative administrations by incoming ‘leftist’ (only people on the right would call Obama that I think) leaders in most Western democracies. And Bush II had an administration that was the most extremely neo-con short of WWII axis nations as any seen in modern history I’d argue.

            To say he presided over a solarPV boom is like saying Al Gore well done, Bush you idiot. I mean Tony Abbott has presided over a rooftop solarPV boom in Australia and he positively hates anything that eats coal and gas profits, simply because his paymasters tell him what to think on the issue. So if you want to credit Obama with a solarPV boom then credit Tony Abbott while you are at it. German Greens party can take the genuine credit though for sparking the PV deployment revolution.

            Still going on your list and will have to get back to you on other points. Didn’t know the work he had done on nuclear non-proliferation for example, excellent. (Not that’s connected to what I was talking about in terms of CC, I wasn’t saying he was a bad President just that even in his own words after his second term election victory he hadn’t nearly done enough on CC and had close friends urging him to go much much further)

          • Bob_Wallace

            After young voters failed to show up in the first midterms and allowed far right Republicans take over the House there was essentially no way for new programs to be legislated nor for new funds to be budgeted for clean energy and climate change work.

            There is only so much a president can do when he has a Congress that totally opposes everything he wants to do.

            We’re on the right path, IMO. From here on the job of shutting down fossil fuels just becomes easier and easier. Within the next two years we should see the emergence of more affordable, easier to site storage and affordable longer range EVs. Those are the two last pieces of the puzzle that we need in order to really speed things up.

            Over the last five to ten years the groundwork has been done. Wind and solar are inexpensive. We’ve made great strides in efficiency. We’re at the point at which most of the remaining work will be done simply because it saves money/makes money for big business.

            The role of government as the main player in the US is finished. The government can be a catalyst, but no longer needs to be the driving force.

          • Alastair Leith

            Yes I know the Republicans trounced Democrats in the midterms and I acknowledged that in my initial post (and it’s a great shame). Why did Obama allow that to happen, did he sit on his personal war-chest for his own second term campaign instead of spending capital on the midterms? How did he twice mobilise the vote for his presidency but not for his party to enable the mandate of his presidential authority in the Congress? This is a genuine question, it kind of mystified me how this was allowed to happen, apparently such a convincing loss.

            If Obama is doing such a top-notch job on Climate how come our children are suing him for lack of climate action? How come he needs to be told going to the Arctic circle to campaign for climate action is not such a great look when you’ve just approved highly contentious drilling for oil in this environment. A place that is extremely remote and vulnerable to an exon valdez or deepwater horizon accident.

            “The role of government as the main player in the US is finished”

            This is an incredibly naive statement — just vote in a Republican President at the next election and you will see how badly things can turn for the worse again for RE, just like they did under Reagan, Bush I & II. US GHG emissions are being underreported while the unconventional gas boom continues to displace coal. So there’s a role for government just for starters, do you job counting emissions properly and then there’s the land use sector, largely under-accounted globally also.

            Ending the trillions of dollars a year FF take in govt subsidies is another ‘role for government’ as yet untaken by the G20 nations and many others.

            This statement you’ve made suggests your faith the the invisible hand of a free market economy is unquestioning, Bob. For many north Americans that is the case. Electricity and other energy markets are complex and even when solar and wind have LCOE advantages over FF sources, there are still many impediments to them taking the entire market by storm. We need a rapid transition (Potsdam said Aust and USA should be a net zero emissions by 2020 and then drawing down to avoid 2ºC… remember that) and rapid-change is still not happening — even though the growth of RE has been impressive, the base was minuscule… I feel kind of funny agreeing with Naomi Klein because I think she over-emphasises this point about the lack of potential for decoupling emissions from our existing economic model(s) at times. I think she largely does this because she is coming at CC from a ‘capitalism is destroying everything perspective’ in her prior work (which I don’t entirely disagree with either). And she sees the great potential for social justice to spring from the current situation of climate injustice and catastrophe.

            In terms of the timeframe we have, to say that the role for government is over is entirely an irresponsible thing to say. Even at the UN negotiations (which have failed us for decades) there’s a potential role for governments to commit to legislating deep emissions cuts (with penalties for non-participants) should the worlds elite rulers ever get their act together on something as self-less as Climate Action.

            I don’t disagree the task becomes easier and easier and that to some extent the path walked so far is full of good intentions but it would be unskillful to suggest that there is no peril awaiting if we take a leave it to the market approach. As a campaigner engaging governments to up their ambition for RE I come up against this reality on a daily basis. There are powerful forces resisting the inevitable shift to RE and too much delay will prove catastrophic for sure.

          • Bob_Wallace

            In the US we have federal elections every two years. Presidents are elected every four years. The years that there is no president election, the ‘off years’ young people tend not to vote. That means that the off year elections often favor conservatives.

            The US president does not run his/her party. And the president certainly does not run the campaigns of individual House and Senate candidates. Democratic candidates failed, in both 2010 and 2014, to turn out voters. Young people do not take their future seriously enough to take a few minutes to vote.

            There’s an additional problem in that many House districts have been gerrymandered in a way that gives Republicans much more representation than they would receive if districts were impartially established.

            And the practice of two senators from each state, regardless of population size, makes the US Senate very non-proportional. North Dakota, for example, has one senator per 370,000 people. California has one senator per 19.5 million people. The interior states tend to be very conservative compared to the coastal states.

            PBO went to the Arctic in order to bring more attention to the Arctic. I’m not happy about oil drilling in the Arctic but I’d rather see it being done under US EPA regulations rather than countries such as Canada and Russia that have very low environmental standards.

            Arctic oil is pretty unlikely to come to market for ten years or more. Hopefully we’ll be well on our way to EVs by then and expensive Arctic oil will never be harvested.

            “This statement you’ve made suggests your faith the the invisible hand of a free market economy is unquestioning,”

            You overstate my position. What I am saying is that the federal and some state’s subsidies for wind and solar have pretty much done the job that they needed to do. They have assisted the wind and solar industries to grow to the point at which economies of scale have kicked in an reduced prices to the point at which installation decisions – based on cost – are now being made in favor of wind and solar.

            We need the government mostly to simply stay out of the way. We need the US government to not do what we are seeing done in Australia and a few other countries where fossil fuel (and nuclear?) interests are interfering with the market in an attempt to slow/stall renewable installation.

      • Rob G

        Sure, nobody denies that Obama was slow out of the blocks. My point is a simple one, Obama has little over a year now and nothing to lose. So it’s full throttle on CC in the lead up to the Paris conference. I see Obama being a global statesman, a kind of Al Gore with more muscle, working with other countries to build a path forward. Yes, his hands are tied by Congress, but he has found a lot of quite clever ways around them with EPA and solar incentives etc. Many of the states have taken things into their own hands and with some of Obama’s policies there we see some good ground work taking place. California is the poster boy here, and Texas is close behind. After Obama, we should hope for Bernie Sanders getting through – now that would be a game changer (Hillary and Joe Biden would be ok too – but Bernie is better).

  • Tim Buckley

    The advent of commercially viable energy efficiency and distributed solar with storage makes the “economy vs the environment” a sound bite with zero substance – something we are getting use to from our Federal Government.

    • Alastair Leith

      Hey it worked (politically not morally) all those years for George Bush, I’m sure Tony is not for turning this late in his innings.

      • Peter

        Hope he does turn myself he is out of step with most of the planet

  • Mick L

    We can only hope for a leader in the near future that looks forward with vision and acts positively and rationally. It certainly won’t be Abbott.

  • Jacob

    Obama does not get universal healthcare.

    He had 2 terms. He should have done everything in his power to get universal healthcare.

    • Gyrogordini

      I think he does get it, and he did try hard, but the GOP morons selfishly fight against anything that might improve the lot of the have nots.

      • Jacob

        I thought he has a veto or few.

  • Phil Patterson

    Hi Giles and Tim (seeing as you’re here on this thread),
    Given the sheer exponential rise of non-fossil fuel energy and plummeting import, price, use and shares in thermal coal and fossil fuels in general, it’s really concerning about the plans to use government funding to prop up the Carmichael project. I have two questions on that. Firstly, if that several billion dollars DOES get put into the rail project, will that also help to fund construction to begin on the mine itself? Secondly, even WITH this possible subsidising, do either of you think this white elephant project will actually still go ahead as both Adani and the LNP have stated? Cheers.

    • john

      I doubt very much that the Government will build the rail line let alone the coal port this would be a mistake.
      No they will not do that they may facilitate it but not pay for it.

  • john

    I liken government leaders to a class room.

    Up the front the low achievers who need help and may have to repeat the year perhaps the Australian leadership sits there at the back Germany, Denmark and increasing toward that area is India and it would appear China.

    In the middle a group of leaders who may or may not strive to achieve.

    Perhaps this link may be of interest Climate Action Tracker http://climateactiontracker.org/

  • Cormac Farrell

    “We should always remember that free markets are a means to an end. They would defeat their object if by their output they did more damage to the quality of life through pollution than the well-being they achieve by the production of goods and services.” Margaret Thatcher, 1989.

  • Colin Nicholson

    Though stuff like fracking is not good, I’ll give Obama an exemption from criticism on it, since a USA not beholding to the middle east for oil is probably more important at this stage, and fracking itself is expensive and will be replaced by renewables.