I had the very good fortune to attend President Obama’s clean energy speech at MIT yesterday. I was extremely excited to be in the room, yet left disappointed in the lack of new commitments and jingoistic tone set by President Obama.
The theme of the speech was innovation, geared toward the research oriented host, MIT. Much was made of the pioneering identity of Americans, and our capacity for discovery and leadership. The frontier for the 21st century is the transition to clean energy. Obama expressed a certainty that the US has not lost its capacity to lead innovation, and that we can maintain world economic dominance by investing in clean energy. He referred to clean energy as a “peaceful competition” that will determine the leaders of the global economy. His belief that clean energy technology is the key to economic prosperity was inspiring and reassuring to me.
My concern is that the speech set Americans apart from the rest of the world in a competition, rather than affirming the need for global cooperation. Using economic prosperity as a reason to transition away from fossil fuel is an important rhetoric for standing up to industrial skeptics that believe that regulation of fossil fuels will hurt our economy. However the best chance for preventing climate change requires multilateral cooperation. By using the rhetoric of competition Obama is setting the US on a course that denies the importance of collective international action.
The best motivation for innovation is economic efficiency. The externalized environmental costs of fossil fuels prevent such efficiencies from being recognized. However piecemeal unilateral regulations are unlikely to effectively internalize the environmental costs in a globalized economy. To truly encourage innovation, economic incentives need to be set on a level playing field internationally. This may not increase US advantages, but it will increase the profit incentives for our industries to achieve the desired transition. Having faith in America’s pioneering capacity to innovate should not prevent us from participating in international cooperative efforts to create a coherent and rational economic signal that the carbon economy is coming to an end. America may lead the world in innovation, but it should not attempt to do so without cooperating in a global carbon regulation regime that incentivizes the transition. Obama’s failure to use this speech as an opportunity to rally Americans around the goal of setting a meaningful international policy on carbon in Copenhagen was a disappointment.