Obama Adviser: Government Responsible for Climate Action in Future

The oil and gas industry takes much of the credit for recent decreases in greenhouse gas emissions. But President Obama’s senior adviser on energy and climate policy argued Tuesday that the government will have to take the lead going forward.

His hard-hitting comments run counter to arguments by oil and gas industry leaders, such as the American Petroleum Institute, who have said private-sector ingenuity is responsible for the U.S.’s simultaneous economic growth and improvement on greenhouse gases.

The recent “decoupling” of carbon dioxide emissions from economic growth is a historic paradigm shift, said Brian Deese, a senior adviser to Obama, at an event organized by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Emissions and growth have consistently gone up or down together since the industrial revolution.

Since the fracking boom, however, the United States has seen economic growth and shrinking emissions. While fracking has helped decrease emissions, Deese argued that emissions cuts also are tied to government policies, and that will continue in the future.

“It’s not an accident of history,” Deese said. “In fact, it is directly linked to policies that have now changed the trajectory of where we are projected to go.”

Deese pointed to tax credits for wind and solar power and investments the Obama administration made in 2009 and 2010 in clean energy research. Those actions contributed to cheaper renewable energy and efficient LED light bulbs, he said.

Even the Clean Power Plan, which isn’t in effect yet, has helped clean-energy technologies by sending a long-term market signal about their viability, Deese said.

Deese even gave the federal government some credit for the fracking boom itself, saying it “had its roots in public sector research decades ago.”

When it comes to members of the oil and gas industry, Deese accused them of trying to have it both ways. “A number of our most vocal critics have shifted from saying Obama’s job-killing environmental regulations are what’s killing the economy to saying, ‘Actually, they’re not doing anything, because it’s actually private sector innovation that has driven all of this,’” Deese said.

Despite his praise for the Clean Power Plan, Deese acknowledged it’s the “second-best” approach to combatting climate change, after the idea of a carbon tax, which has a more consistent, predictable economic effect.

But the U.S. is essentially stuck with the second-best approach of state-by-state plans to cut emissions that is led by the executive branch, Deese said. Congress is nowhere close to passing anything else.

The rest of the world is in a similar position, relying on individual nations to come up with their own plans to reach international goals set under the Paris climate agreement, rather than setting an across-the-board global price on carbon.

Ultimately, the Clean Power Plan and Paris agreement accomplish similar goals to a price on carbon, and the process has already gotten underway. The Paris climate agreement has already reached its threshold — more than 55 countries comprising 55 percent of global emissions — to go into effect next month, largely on the belief that the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately uphold the Clean Power Plan.

“The Paris agreement itself is a triumph of second-best alternatives,” Deese said.

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