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Ethical Debate: Clean Energy and the State of the Union

I’ve been critical of President Obama’s policies concerning science, technology and education in the past. I think he uses a lot of great-sounding rhetoric, but I have yet to see very much in the way of actual results. Despite lofty promises about climate change, we remain without a cap-and-trade system or any sort of meaningful response plan. To make things worse, the administration recently fired their primary adviser for climate change policy. Is all hope lost? Perhaps not.

Last week’s “State of the Union” featured a nearly-unprecedented focus on science, technology, and education, and as usual I like the ideas he proposed and was impressed by his speaking ability (though the use of the tagline “winning the future” was peculiar, given that it was the title of a  2005 book by likely 2012 Republican Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich) . He announced goals to modernize U.S. transportation via high speed rail, to increase broadband internet access, and to encourage more people to become teachers. If these turn into tangible results I’ll be a happy scientist.

One aspect of his speech has caused a small uproar among some environmentalists, and I expect it to make for an interesting ethical debate.

Photo credit: Reuters (Jim Young) 2009 via heatingoil.com

A main focus of the speech was a push for clean energy, something that’s pretty high on the wish list of the environmental movement. He correctly pointed out that we are falling behind other countries in this regard. He correctly pointed out that past government investments in R & D (the space race, the internet, etc.) have resulted in enormous economic gains for the nation. He correctly pointed out that no one alternative energy source is a simple fix for our oil-based economy, and that we will instead need a mix of all of them.

Interestingly,  in the entire speech he never discussed why alternative energy is important. Climate change was never mentioned, and people such as Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin aren’t thrilled about it:

“It’s one thing to cave to a wave of naysaying climate rhetoric and build a new American energy conversation on points of agreement rather than clear ideological flash points like global warming. It’s another to duck and cover entirely on climate, as President Obama did”

Some are upset by this strategy, claiming that it represents a surrender on the most important environmental issue of our time and that a major restructuring of our economy (such as a cap-and-trade policy) is the only way to fight climate change.

Others believe that increased investment on clean energy is a good thing regardless of the political tactics that bring it about. They point out that with the current Republican House majority, a perfect climate policy is impossible and that this is the best we can do.

For the purpose of the debate, let’s simplify and claim that the ideal climate policy is in fact cap-and-trade (something that is, in reality, hotly debated by environmentalists).

The question for this ethical debate is simple. Would you rather have the U.S. government invest in clean energy while doing nothing to restrict CO2 emissions (the “better than nothing” policy President Obama proposed in the State of the Union), or would you prefer that we try to fight a likely-unwinnable battle for a perfect solution to climate change?