One Big Way Obama Can’t Outrun Congress on Climate Change

Big nations and private-sector titans arrived in Paris vowing to open their wallets for green energy technology. But can the U.S. make good on its promise?

President Obama arrives in Dillingham, Alaska, on Sept. 2 as part of a three-day trip to Alaska that included using its landscape as an urgent call to action on climate change.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Nov. 29, 2015, 7 p.m.

Even a transat­lantic flight can’t com­pletely un­teth­er Pres­id­ent Obama from con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans when it comes to ce­ment­ing his leg­acy on cli­mate change.

When high-stakes United Na­tions talks on a new glob­al cli­mate pact open Monday in Par­is, Obama and more than a dozen oth­er world lead­ers will pledge a huge boost in re­search-and-de­vel­op­ment fund­ing for low-car­bon en­ergy tech­no­lo­gies.

Twenty na­tions will un­veil “Mis­sion In­nov­a­tion,” a joint plan to double their an­nu­al R&D in­vest­ments over the next five years. Ac­cord­ing to a top White House cli­mate policy ad­viser, the coun­tries cur­rently in­vest a total of about $10 bil­lion an­nu­ally, about half of which comes from the U.S.

But the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s en­ergy R&D spend­ing has been largely stag­nant in re­cent years, and the U.S. por­tion of the pledge is re­li­ant on con­vin­cing Con­gress to open its wal­let in the name of bat­tling cli­mate change, a threat that many Re­pub­lic­ans down­play or even don’t ac­know­ledge.

Re­ly­ing on the good graces of Con­gress to make pro­gress on cli­mate change is something that Obama has gen­er­ally sought to avoid for sev­er­al years.

Since Con­gress ap­proved the big stim­u­lus law that fun­ded a suite of en­ergy ef­forts in 2009—and sub­sequently killed cap-and-trade le­gis­la­tion in 2010—nearly all of Obama’s cli­mate agenda has res­ted on ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions, ran­ging from much tough­er auto-mileage rules to sweep­ing car­bon-emis­sions lim­its for power plants that were fi­nal­ized last sum­mer.

And U.S. of­fi­cials are push­ing for the Par­is ac­cord to be craf­ted in a way that won’t need Sen­ate sign-off the way that form­al new treat­ies do, largely be­cause there’s al­most no chance of win­ning the two-thirds vote that would be needed.

But a big part of the Par­is talks will be about mo­bil­iz­ing the pub­lic-sec­tor and private-sec­tor cash needed to de­vel­op and de­ploy green en­ergy tech­no­logy more widely world­wide. That takes gov­ern­ment money, and in the U.S., that means it takes Con­gress.

And already, Re­pub­lic­ans are res­ist­ing a White House re­quest for a sep­ar­ate pot of money: the $3 bil­lion that the U.S. pledged last year to the Green Cli­mate Fund, a mul­ti­lat­er­al pro­gram to help poor na­tions cut emis­sions and be­come more re­si­li­ent to rising sea levels and oth­er un­avoid­able cli­mat­ic changes. The White House has a pending re­quest for a $500 mil­lion tranche of that money.

Still, get­ting Con­gress to help with the new and sep­ar­ate R&D ini­ti­at­ive, even if Cap­it­ol Hill re­mains con­trolled by the GOP, may not be pie in the sky. Re­pub­lic­ans are gen­er­ally more friendly to ba­sic re­search than to reg­u­la­tions or to dir­ect sup­port for clean-tech com­pan­ies through loans and tax sub­sidies.

Con­sider that the En­ergy De­part­ment branch for fund­ing so-called high-risk, high-re­ward en­ergy-tech re­search, called the Ad­vanced Re­search Pro­jects Agency for En­ergy (ARPA-E), has had bi­par­tis­an sup­port for years.

And while Jeb Bush’s en­ergy plan is a set of fa­mil­i­ar anti-reg­u­lat­ory talk­ing points, near the end he notes: “[W]e can fur­ther ac­cel­er­ate the dis­cov­ery of game-chan­ging tech­no­lo­gies by boost­ing fund­ing for high-pri­or­ity ba­sic re­search and in­creas­ing the ef­fect­ive­ness of our na­tion­al labs.”

Top Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials ar­gued Sunday that the R&D fund­ing plan has ap­peal on both sides of the aisle.

“The in­nov­a­tion agenda in gen­er­al is one that ac­tu­ally does at­tract bi­par­tis­an sup­port,” En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz told re­port­ers on a con­fer­ence call Sunday. “I cer­tainly have spoken with many mem­bers on both sides of the aisle, quite frankly, just in the last few days, and the in­nov­a­tion agenda is one that at­tracts broad sup­port,” Mon­iz said

White House cli­mate ad­viser Bri­an Deese said the Mis­sion In­nov­a­tion ef­fort is the fruit of an “in­tense dip­lo­mat­ic ef­fort” in re­cent weeks. The 19 oth­er na­tions in­volved in­clude China and In­dia, which re­spect­ively are the world’s largest and third-largest green­house gas pol­luters (the U.S. is second). Oth­ers in­clude Saudi Ar­a­bia, Brazil, In­done­sia, Den­mark, Canada, Mex­ico, and Ja­pan.

“This is an ef­fort de­signed to ac­cel­er­ate clean-en­ergy in­nov­a­tion, ad­dress glob­al cli­mate change, provide af­ford­able clean en­ergy to con­sumers with a spe­cial fo­cus on the de­vel­op­ing world, and cre­at­ing com­mer­cial op­por­tun­it­ies for clean en­ergy in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries,” said Deese, who briefed re­port­ers Sunday.

The mul­ti­lat­er­al Mis­sion In­nov­a­tion ef­fort is one half of a pub­lic-private an­nounce­ment as the Par­is cli­mate sum­mit opens. The oth­er half is the launch of an ini­ti­at­ive led by Mi­crosoft founder and phil­an­throp­ist Bill Gates called the Break­through En­ergy Co­ali­tion that of­fi­cials hope will com­ple­ment the stepped-up R&D.

It’s an ef­fort by high-pro­file private in­vestors and cor­por­ate ex­ec­ut­ives to greatly in­crease as­sist­ance for com­pan­ies seek­ing to bring prom­ising new en­ergy tech­no­lo­gies from the lab in­to real-world de­ploy­ment, a gap of­ten called the “Val­ley of Death” be­cause it’s where many com­pan­ies fail.

The group in­cludes Gates, Face­book’s Mark Zuck­er­berg, Hew­lett-Pack­ard CEO Meg Whit­man, bil­lion­aire act­iv­ists George Sor­os and Tom Stey­er, and 23 oth­ers from mul­tiple coun­tries. It’s de­signed to work in tan­dem with the gov­ern­ment R&D fund­ing boost. Here’s part of the lengthy joint state­ment that the in­vestors re­leased Sunday even­ing:

“Ex­per­i­ence in­dic­ates that even the most prom­ising ideas face daunt­ing com­mer­cial­iz­a­tion chal­lenges and a nearly im­pass­able Val­ley of Death between prom­ising concept and vi­able product, which neither gov­ern­ment fund­ing nor con­ven­tion­al private in­vest­ment can bridge. This col­lect­ive fail­ure can be ad­dressed, in part, by a dra­mat­ic­ally scaled-up pub­lic re­search pipeline, linked to a dif­fer­ent kind of private in­vestor with a long-term com­mit­ment to new tech­no­lo­gies who is will­ing to put truly pa­tient flex­ible risk cap­it­al to work.”

There’s a reas­on for all the fo­cus on R&D and get­ting the fruit of lab work in­to the glob­al en­ergy mar­ket.

In­ter­na­tion­al ne­go­ti­ations are aimed at try­ing to lim­it the rise in glob­al tem­per­at­ures to 2 de­grees Celsi­us above prein­dus­tri­al levels, which sci­ent­ists say would help avoid some of the most dan­ger­ous ef­fects of cli­mate change.

But ex­perts say that the car­bon-cut­ting pledges called “In­ten­ded Na­tion­ally De­term­ined Con­tri­bu­tions” that na­tions have sub­mit­ted to the United Na­tions, which last through 2025 or 2030, won’t tame glob­al emis­sions enough to stay un­der that tar­get. So work to bring emer­ging tech­no­lo­gies and steep­er cost re­duc­tions in­to the mar­ket—and re­l­at­ively quickly—is needed.

“For all of the pro­gress that has [been] made, those IN­DCs alone are not suf­fi­cient,” Deese told re­port­ers. “We know that we are go­ing to need to do more to mo­bil­ize fin­an­cial sup­port for low-car­bon de­vel­op­ment in the coun­tries that need it.”

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